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nh \ 


Interviewed by Richard C&ndida Smith 


Completed under the auspices 

of the 

Oral History Program 

University of California 

Los Angeles 

Copyright © 1989 
The Regents of the University of California 


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Piece of Pieces from The Sea , 19 58, photograph by 
Janice Felgar. 


TAPE NUMBER: VII, Side One (February 7, 1987) 268 

Wagner moves to Topanga Canyon from Arizona--Karl 
Nolde--Wagner ' s waterless house--Von's Cafe 
Galleria--Syndell Studios--Exodus Gallery and 
Connor Everts--Ferus Gallery--Gil Henderson-- 
Wagner ' s shows in various Los Angeles galleries-- 
Recent gallery experiences. 

TAPE NUMBER: VII, Side Two (February 7, 1987) 291 

Wagner leaves Silvan Simone Gallery for Robert 
Comara--Wagner returns to Simone--Purchase-award 
competitions--Wagner discusses his dislike for 
the Ferus group's "snob attitude"--Artistic 
"discussions" --Hollywood clique--Af ro-American 
and Chicano artists in Los Angeles--Wagner 
punches out Walter Hopps--The beatniks--Ramblin ' 
Jack Eliot--Lord Buckley--Topanga and its 

TAPE NUMBER: VIII, Side One (February 7, 1987) 316 

Meeting and marrying Virginia Copeland Wagner- - 
Wagner's "Mexican side" has "just disappeared "-- 
Icon to Great Railroads and the Indian way of 

TAPE NUMBER: IX, Side One (February 14, 1987) 324 

Wagner begins to make box assemblages in Mexico-- 
Oaxaca--The Spectator- -Day of the E)ead--Dumps in 
New Mexico--The Phantom Ship- -Performance pieces: 
Living in Infinity, Loof Lirpa, and The Maze of 
Invisible Images--Don Preston--The sixties--Art 
magazines and their reviewers--A Vietnam protest 
piece- -America Needs Indians. 

TAPE NUMBER: IX, Side Two (February 14, 1987) 346 

The Hopis and the hippies--Harry Hay- -America 
Needs Indians--Yogi Bhajan--Teaching at Pitzer 
College--Selling his art in the late sixties and 
seventies--Wagner ' s first exhibit in Sweden--Six 
months in London. 


TAPE NUMBER: X, Side One (February 21, 1987) 368 

Looking for a gallery in London- -Bernard Lang- -The 
old masters--Gathering junk at Henry Moore 's-- 
Wagner begins to construct narrative boxes- - 
Aleatory art- -A London show- -Memories of the 
Future . 

TAPE NUMBER: X, Side Two (February 21, 1987) 388 

The English versus Americans --Firaskew-- The 
absurd--English versus California dunips--Theatre 
of "the Upside Down--A rebirth in surrealism-- 
Scale in box constructions--Bruce Houston-- 
Concepts and titles in Wagner's work--Wagner goes 
to Belgium- -Trompe l'oeil--The Phantoni--The 
Bowler- -The Shadow of a Doubt- -Separate 
Reflections- -Mirror imagery- -Medieval Christian 
symbols- -Russian Hill Incident. 

TAPE NUMBER: XI, Side One (February 28, 1987) 409 

Wagner's shows in Belgium--Belgian surrealism-- 
Studying the roots of surrealism--Interest in 
American art in Belgium and Sweden--Interest in 
California--Erotic art. 

TAPE NUMBER: XI, Side Two (February 28, 1987) ..429 

More on eroticism in art--Surrealism and 
cruelty--There are no more bourgeois--Spontaneity 
and automatic painting-- "Editing chaos" --Freudian 
and Jungian theories--Surrealism and amusement 
zones--People ' s surrealism--Dream narratives. 

TAPE NUMBER: XII, Side One (March 7, 1987) 451 

More on Wagner's first trip to Belgium--Wagner 
moves to San Francisco--Vorpal Gallery--Living in 
Sebastopol--Joseph Cornell--The importance of the 
grid in twentieth-century art--The Staircase-- 
Introduction to Catholicism--Father Arthur Swain. 

TAPE NUMBER: XII, Side Two (March 7, 1987) 472 

The Wagners return to Belgium--Reception in a 
castle--Saint Teresa of Avila and The Interior 
Cast:le--Puns and the playing card series- - 
Becoming Catholics--Reading about Saint Teresa-- 

Exhibition at California State University, 
Fresno--Moving back to Los Angeles--Wagner ' s 
difficulties visualizing what The Interior Castle 
should look like--A vision from Saint Joseph--The 
emerging piece is blessed. 

TAPE NUMBER: XIII, Side One (March 21, 1987) 495 

More on the vision from Saint Joseph--The seven 
levels of The Interior Castle--Saint Teresa's 
guidance during the castle's construction--Help 
from strangers along the way- -Making the 
figures- -Exhibiting The Interior Castle. 

TAPE NUMBER: XIII, Side Two (March 21, 1987) 517 

Ascent and rebirth imagery--Contemplative prayer-- 
Surrealism and religion--Projects after The 
Interior Castle--The Room--Ships--Angel ' s Gate 
Cultural Center--Community galleries versus art 
associations--Upcoming shows- -"Toying Around" at 
Barnsdall Junior Art Center. 

TAPE NUMBER: XIV, Side One (March 23, 1987) 541 

Firaskew- -Memories of the old Redondo Pier-- 
Brighton Pier--Trompe I'oeil in Firaskew-- 
Miniaturization in Wagner's work--Collective and 
archetypal dreams--Involvement with Dreamworks-- 
Los Angeles as an artists' community. 

Index 562 

Index of Gordon Wagner Works 572 


FEBRUARY 7, 1987 

SMITH: I thought today, Gordon, we would resume the 
chronology of your life. When we left off with that, we 
were in Topanga; you had moved to Topanga, back from 
Arizona in the mid-1950s. So my first question is what led 
you to return to Southern California from Arizona? 
WAGNER: Well, I had a problem there of survival. Arizona 
is a wonderful place, especially an Indian reservation, but 
when you run out of money, there's not much you can do but 
come back to where you were. I didn't want to go back to 
Hermosa Beach, I wanted to get away from that area for a 
while. I owned the house there, rented that to people. 
And I said, well, what would be a good compromise between 
the sea and Arizona, where I could get the terrain of 
nature and mountains, and yet be close to the sea so I 
could go swimming and bodysurfing if I wanted to? And 
something flashed on me: Topanga Canyon. At that time, 
there were a group of artists living there, and rent was so 
cheap it was incredible. The first house we lived in was 
about five bedrooms and a huge living room and studio, and 
it was, I think, $57.50 a month rent. I stayed there until 
the landlord dynamited a big rock in front of the place, 
and kind of changed the geographic position of the house, 
his house and all the rest of the houses in the 


neighborhood. Yeah, that was on Fernwood Pacific 
[Drive]. A guy named Vance Sanders. He meant well. He 
did scare the people a bit. So in sheer desperation — I 
didn't know what to do, and this wonderful woman who lived 
about three blocks away said, "I have a house for rent up 
on the top of the hill with a view that you just won't 
believe." And she said, "It's such a beautiful house, and 
an acre with gardens all landscaped, I'd have to charge you 
$90 a month rent for it." So I moved up there after a year 
of the other place. 

SMITH: Is that the house that didn't have any water? 
WAGNER: No, that's another one. That was after the one on 
Summit [Drive]. There I met a lot of wonderful people. I 
got very stimulated by Topanga and by the artists who lived 
there. That's where I met Karl Nolde, the German 
expressionist. He lived across the road from me. 
SMITH: Nole or Nolde? 
WAGNER: Nolde. 

SMITH: Is he any relation to Emil Nolde? 
WAGNER: Yeah, he was the brother of Emil Nolde. But he 
called himself Kanol in America, Karl Kanol, of Karl Nol of 
Nolde. He kept you laughing from night to day, wonderful 
German. I could go on with stories about him for years. 
Incredible what he got into, just living in Topanga. 
SMITH: Well, maybe you could just give us one of the 


stories about Karl Nolde? 

WAGNER: Well, I wouldn't know where to start with that, 
because he was always having-- He was a painter who painted 
German expressionist painting. He still is a German 
expressionist, and he is still painting, but now he lives 
in Mexico in Guanajuato. He's lived there since about 
1957. He liked to buy old automobiles. He had sort of an 
obsession for old vehicles in the thirties: '37, '36 
models, '35, '32. 

One story I can tell you, he also painted houses to 
make a living. But his house was stacked with paintings, 
and he hung paintings on top of paintings in the house. He 
lived next door to a woman who kept monkeys, who had a 
monkey farm up the canyon, a Mrs. Buckman. He lived next 
door to her. The monkey- farm lady had about three hundred 
monkeys. She would dress up the most wonderful monkeys in 
clothes, all sorts of suits and neckties and shirts, and 
bring them down to the market in Topanga in a group. 
They'd go into the store and drive the storekeeper crazy, 
and the butcher, they'd be up on the butcher's counter. 
The whole monkey farm burned down one day. Two monkeys got 
in a fight over a cigarette and a match and set fire to the 
hay. Burned the whole place down before they could do 
anything. She lost about, oh, 50 percent of her animals 
The fire department tried to hook up the water, but the 


bigger monkeys were unhooking it all the time. They were 
up on the fire truck putting the hats on. Like the 
chimps — 

SMITH: Did the monkeys escape? 

WAGNER: Yeah, well, they were all out of their cages 
running around wild. The fire department was so 
frustrated-- Actually, when they went back after the fire 
was over, down to the station in Topanga-- Bob Etts, he was 
my friend, he told me the story. When they got back they 
were all talking about the crazy fire and all these crazy 
animals. They went out, and there were two monkeys that 
were unrolling the hose out of the fire truck at the fire 
station. [laughter] 

Well, Karl became a neighbor of Mrs. Buckman, who 
slept with an ape and had a donkey that was always right in 
the middle of the road. In order to make an entrance into 
my house and Karl's-- And Hazelett lived up there, he had 
the Hound of the Baskerville. It was a big dog he'd named 
something or other. He had these huge hounds. The three 
entries where it was very steep, at night we'd come home at 
one, two in the morning, the donkey would be lying across 
the road. We'd have to get out and sit on a steep angle 
and pull this animal off the road to get by him, he 
wouldn't move. We told Mrs. Buckman about it a hundred 
times; it didn't do any good. 


Karl was always painting, but he left his window 
open. One night there was a knock at the door, and there 
was a monkey, or two monkeys, dressed up in Lederhosen. He 
opened the door and they both jumped up on him and hugged 
him while the other monkeys came through the back window. 
They were throwing his brushes all over the studio, you 
know. Karl was going mad with these monkeys. So that was 
a typical Topanga story. 

As for his cars, that's a whole different thing--that 
goes on and on and on. The things caught on fire, and he 
was arrested. He drove one car to Santa Monica down on the 
Pacific Coast Highway near the overpass, the Wilshire 
overpass. It ran out of gas. So he went to get gasoline, 
and he came back and the car was gone; somebody had stolen 
it. So he went to the Santa Monica City Hall, told the 
police, reported it. He hitchhiked back to Topanga, and 
then he got his other car. He drove that down, and that 
broke down in the middle of the highway. He went for help 
at a gas station, came back and that one was stolen. He 
went to the city hall again, and they refused to accept his 
complaints. They said he was crazy and threw him in 
jail. [laughter] So he finally got out after he convinced 
them that he was not crazy, and he really did have two 
cars, and they were both stolen on the same day within four 
hours of each other. He went home and got his old truck. 


He had to paint some house in the [San Fernando] Valley, 
and he's going down the hill, and he got down there and 
this woman stopped dead in front of him and slammed on the 
brakes, and he rear-ended her. Well, when he did that, all 
of the paint in the truck tipped over, and the lids came 
off and it started running all over the f loor--green, white 
paints, mixed. The policeman screamed at Karl to get out 
of the truck. And he said, [with German accent] "I can't 
get out of the truck, I'm stuck." 

And he said, "What do you mean you're stuck?" 

"Well, I'll tell you." 

"I'll pull you out." So he opened the door to pull 
Karl out, and when he did that all the paint ran out all 
over the policeman's pants and boots, completely down over 
his feet and legs. So Karl was again taken in that day, in 
Van Nuys. 

He had these things happen to him. One car caught on 
fire on the Pacific Coast Highway, in the back seat, and he 
had nothing to do, so he kept running over across the 
traffic getting sand in his hands to pour on it, to put out 
the fire. [laughter] Back and forth. 

Karl's eighty- two now. When he was seventy-nine, they 
had the Cervantes Festival in Mexico, in Guanajuato. Karl 
walked up to the conductor, the conductor of the Leipzig 
Symphony Orchestra. They played Mahler, and when they got 


all through, he said, "You know, Mahler was my hero, and 
Bruno Walter was my hero." 

And the man said, "Who are you?" 

"Well, I lived in Leipzig, my name is Karl Nolde." 

"Karl Nolde. Where have you been?" 

He says, "Why do you ask?" 

He said, "We've been looking for you for years, you've 
been lost." 

He said, "How do you mean that?" 

He said, "Half of our museum is full of your work. 
I'll send you a catalog." So they sent him a catalog this 
thick, and just about half of the book was his paintings, 
his works. So they invited him to have a retrospective on 
his eightieth birthday of all that work and his new 
works. So he went to Leipzig to celebrate that. I had him 
for a neighbor and all other kinds of eccentrically 
wonderful people for neighbors. Topanga was a place where 
you didn't expect anybody to come in it, and the people who 
lived there, you didn't expect would ever leave. 
SMITH: Was Topanga more isolated then? Was it harder to 
get in and out from the highway? 

WAGNER: No. It was for a while, because they cut the 
highway off, took one mile out of the curves, and you 
couldn't go to the coast at all. It was all shut up from 
the coast up to Topanga, to remove these curves. So if we 


came home before two in the morning-- They'd let natives 
through on this dirt road, but no one else. If you came 
home after two In the morning. It was locked up and you had 
to walk home. I remember those ley cold nights going up 
that canyon, and the full moon. It was a beautiful thing 
to see, and it was like walking on the moon. You'd have to 
walk all the way home. 

SMITH: At this time, you were working at Rocketdyne in 
Canoga Park? 

WAGNER: Rocketdyne? No, not at that time, I wasn't. I 
was just painting. I wasn't working right at that moment, 
no. It was a little later I took a job in Santa Monica, at 
the Steven Douglas Company. I worked on the plotting table 
for a jet simulator, a jet-fighting FJ-1 simulator, for 
pilots in plotting the curves. I worked on the first 
plotting table like that to get all these curves related to 
the flight situation and developed all this as a machine to 
do it. It was purchased by Benson Lehner later. The 
original concept, the actual electronics, were worked out 
by a man from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] , 
and I was doing the electromechanical design for it, to 
make it work. He had the theories of how it might do it, 
so there were two of us working on this device. 

Then I took time off for Mexico and went there for a 
while. I came back and moved up on a mountain where I 


purchased a house for $10,000 with a living room that was 
fifty feet by forty and a twenty-seven- foot ceiling. That 
was Charlie Chaplin's house at one time. And Payne--what 
was his name- -Robert Payne? The poet. He lived there 
before me. It was three acres and no water. That was the 
place that was waterless. 
SMITH: You had a well or something? 

WAGNER: No, nothing. Water tank. Had to supply the water 
through the water tank. It was supposed to come up from 
the bottom of the canyon. The Topanga Oaks Mutual Water 
Company supplied the water, but by the time it went through 
about thirty houses down below, it never reached my tank. 
I had to go and get water and haul it back up there. I 
built a water tank on a trailer, and I'd go down to Santa 
Monica on a Friday night to Zucky's and have my coffee; 
usually take Karl along, or somebody, John Raymond or 
[Arnold] Schiffrin or somebody. We'd go spend about two 
hours in there while my water tank was filling up in the 
service station across the street. You know, I'd stick it 
in, and I knew about the time it was filled. It was five 
hundred gallons; truck it up there, and it was good for 
about a week. 

SMITH: I'd like to ask you a little bit about some of the 
places in Los Angeles and Southern California where you 
were exhibiting at the time. Did you have shows at Von's 


[Caf6 Galleria] coffeehouse? 

WAGNER: Yes, I did. Ed [Edward] Kienholz got that show 

for me, following him. I met him in Topanga when he came 

to visit me. 

SMITH: He lived there at the time? 

WAGNER: He was having a show at Von's. No, he lived down 

in L.A.; he lived on Melrose Avenue, I think it was. 

SMITH: At the time, yeah. 

WAGNER: Near Melrose in an old house, a roofless house. I 

was introduced to him through Arnold Wagman, who was a New 

York character, a true man from the Lower East Side, you 

know, and a funny guy, a wonderful wit. Anyway, Von gave 

me the exhibition right after Ed Kienholz, and I think the 

next show after that was Hans Burkhardt. 

SMITH: In terms of the shows that Von had, what was he, as 

far as you know, what was he concerned about doing with 

these shows? Was it very open, was he trying to show a lot 

of different types of work, or did he have pretty specific 


WAGNER: I don't think Von much worried about anything like 

that. He was a very happy man that ran an espresso bar and 

coffeehouse, and good quality food. What his basic 

interest was was to have fairly good quality art hanging on 

his walls as decoration, you know. I think that's what he 

was basically into, but it was a good place, because a lot 


of people came there at that time. It was the time of the 

coffeehouses, when things were getting going. He was 

probably one of the first. 

SMITH: What about Syndell [Studios] gallery, Walter 

Hopps's first gallery, did you exhibit there? 

WAGNER: No, no, I never exhibited at Syndell. That was 

before — Ed Kienholz did have an exhibition at Syndell. 

There were people there like Bob [Robert] Irwin, and Craig 

Kauffman, and, oh, the San Francisco artist who was the big 

artist, you know. 

SMITH: Hassel Smith? 

WAGNER: Hassel Smith, he was there, yeah. Wally [Wallace] 

Hedrick, and just a few. Wally [Wallace] Herman. 

Walter put on the Merry-Go-Round Show, which was in 
the Santa Monica merry-go-round building, where he had a 
lot of these kind of pieces, you know, from his gallery. 
It was a really exciting show. I remember there was one 
painting that had — a big black painting with a hole in it, 
just punched through. There was a weightlifter from Muscle 
Beach, and he was standing there, and he was so angry, he 
used to come in every day and bend a one- inch bar of steel 
double like this to vent his fury about the piece. 

Syndell was on Gorham Avenue, right off of San Vicente 

[Boulevard] and-- 

SMITH: Harrington [Avenue], right? 


WAGNER: Barrington, where the Intersection is. It was a 
redwood building that was made out of logs. It actually 
was a real estate office at one time. A very nice 
juxtaposition, because here was the Syndell gallery, with 
Walter, and then there was Robert Mallory--on the end was 
Nellie Trout, who was a little old lady who had life- 
drawing classes for menopause-type women, real 
pretty paintings, and the Syndell on the other end of the 
building. It was an interesting juxtaposition, 
[laughter] Entirely opposite. 

SMITH: What about Exodus Gallery? Did you ever exhibit 

WAGNER: Not really, no. No. I went to performances 
there. You're talking about Connor Everts ' s gallery in San 
Pedro . 

SMITH: Right. 

WAGNER: I showed a couple of things there, but never had a 
big show; you know, things. It was a wonderful place. 
SMITH: In terms of the artistic community that exists in 
San Pedro now with Angel's Gate [Cultural Center] and the 
artists who are living there now, was the Exodus Gallery an 
important thing in terms of attracting artists to the 
area? How important was it in terms of what has developed 
in San Pedro? 
WAGNER: I would say that 99 percent of the people in San 


Pedro never heard of the Exodus Gallery. 
SMITH: Even the artists? 

WAGNER: Well, there weren't any artists in San Pedro. 
They didn't exist. The reason I think that Connor Everts 
opened the Exodus Gallery was that it was a funky 
neighborhood. It was right off of Beacon Street, which was 
the center of San Pedro, with all its bars and the red- 
light district. It was funky; it was where it was supposed 
to be. It was like a beat coffeehouse, but it was 
elegantly put together by Connor, who's always been a 
master at building and designing. He had performances and 
happenings and all these sorts of things, and everybody 
came there , but I don ' t think anybody from San Pedro ever 
would even bother to look in the place. I think the reason 
that Connor got there was because Connor was a 
longshoreman, and he worked unloading banana boats in the 
old days when they did it by hand without the containers. 
I think it was a convenient place for him to have a 
coffeehouse, being in San Pedro where he worked. He was 
married to the Nisei Queen [Chizuko Everts] at that time. 
She was the most-- You know, in Little Tokyo they have 
every year the Nisei Week? She won that. She was a 
beautiful Japanese girl. At that time, Connor was doing 
all sorts of fantastic pieces of art. He was a good 
draftsman, and he had a wonderful sense of humor. He still 


has a wonderful sense of humor. The last time I saw him, 
he said, "Gordon, if you don't have a show by the time 
you're fifteen years old, you just ain't going to make 
it." A retrospective, he said. 

SMITH: Now, the Ferus Gallery, did you ever exhibit your 
work in the Ferus? 

WAGNER: Yeah, a little bit. Ed Kienholz opened his own 
gallery, the Now Gallery, out on La Cienega [Boulevard] . He 
gave me my, actually, first show in Los Angeles in that 
area in his gallery. Right after that a sort of 
partnership came about because Walter moved from the 
Syndell to a gallery that was a warehouse in the back of an 
antique store [run by people] by the name of Streeter and 
Camille Blair. They gave them that whole space for the 
Ferus Gallery. So Ed took all his artists with him, and 
they kind of combined the two together for a while until 
Walter decided which ones he wanted and which ones he 
didn't want. Two different personalities and reasons, and 
so there were some eliminated and some stayed until they 
got what they wanted. 

SMITH: Ed Kienholz, in his oral history, mentions that for 
a while the gallery was run--it was his and Walter's 
gallery, but it was run, in a way, collectively; the 
artists would discuss things until they arrived at a 
consensus. Is that how you saw it? 


WAGNER: Yeah. Bob [Robert] Alexander had a big part in 

it, too. 

SMITH: Did you participate in those discussions? 

WAGNER: Oh, a few, yeah. 

SMITH: Like what kinds of things-- Like whose work would 
be shown? 

WAGNER: Yeah, that sort of thing, nothing major. When 
they closed down Wally Herman's show, for the cross with 
the sexual photograph of Shirley and Wally, the police shut 
that down. Bob Alexander was very big in the gallery then, 
you know, he was working. You know Baza [Bob Alexander], 
don't you? He's in Venice, he has the temple. I'm a 
member of that, [laughter] I'm an ordained minister, as a 
matter of fact, of that temple. Still have my license from 
the State of California. He invited me, and there were a 
lot of people like Berman and [George] Herms in his 
temple. He's still running it. 

But he was important in that time, and he says, "Okay, 
guys, it's all over. We're being shut down." He came 
running into the-- "The fuzz are here to close down the 
gallery for Wally 's show." And Kienholz, he was most of 
the time sitting in the lotus position working on his wood 
pieces, like the one behind you on the floor. At that 
time, Gil Henderson was pouring the paint all over the 
canvases. The guys worked in this gallery; they used it as 


a studio. Gil was pouring all this paint all over the 
canvas, and then he'd take a stick or knife and scrape half 
the painting away, leaving it kind of tracked. Then he'd 
throw it up onto the roof of the Ferus Gallery and let it 
dry. Artie Richer was walking around making things out of 
torn roofing paper. And John Reed, he was building things 
out of paper and collage. John Reed always walked around, 
he wore a Greek sailor's hat, and he always said, "You 
know, an artist's work is never done." A lot of those 
people moved, like Dane Dixon. They all took off or died. 
SMITH: Kienholz, in his oral history, mentions that, well, 
he mentions Henderson, in particular, moving to New York 
and then disappearing. He feels that if Henderson had 
stayed in Los Angeles he would have developed as a stronger 

SMITH: Kienholz said that in his oral history about 
Henderson, Gil Henderson. 

WAGNER: Oh, Gil Henderson? Gil Henderson moved to New 
York, and he had a big show when he came back. He had a 
show in the-- What was it? I saw Gil Henderson at 
Kienholz ' s exhibit at the Dwan Gallery, and he was all 
dressed up in a suit and a necktie and a top coat. He 
looked like a millionaire. [laughter] I first knew Gil 
Henderson on the beach in Hermosa when he was married to 


Olympia. They lived right about a block away from me. He 
spent quite a bit of time in Hermosa Beach. I think the 
last show he had was in Molly Barnes's gallery with Picture 
Frames. He worked in the framing company, and he had 
moldings this big, and cornices. They were coming out of 
the walls, and he put frames inside of frames. The whole 
thing was creeping all over the gallery, the picture frames 
as sculpture. It was a beautiful show, I loved it. Then 
in the middle of it, he'd put up a glass cover like that, 
and he'd write a note and ball it all up and throw it in 
there, and it would say something like--I forget the 
quote--why are kids so nasty, or something like that. 

He worked for Art Services as a picture framer, you 
know, cutting molding. He stacked all his work up and said 
he was never going to show it again as long as he lived. 
And last I heard, he hasn't shown anywhere. I remember 
when he won the first award in the [Los Angeles] County 
Museum show back in I think about '51, '52, the Atavistic 
Image. He had a lot of talent, and [Lorser] Feitelson was 
really behind Gil Henderson. I like Gil Henderson. He was 
a calm guy, rather negative, but he was okay. 
SMITH: What do you mean negative? 
WAGNER: Bitter, I mean bitter. 

SMITH: At this time, I'm talking about the mid-fifties, 
late fifties, was Irwin already discussing perceptual 


theory, or was he as intellectual as he-- 

WAGNER: No, he was doing just kind of-- In the fifties he 

was making bone paintings, drawing bones and things like 


SMITH: In terms of when he would be talking to other 

artists, was he very intellectual compared to — 

WAGNER: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Super intellectual, yeah. 

He could talk pretty well when he wanted to. If he didn't 

want to sit down for an hour and meditate in a lecture. 

He'd do that sometimes, the class would wait for him to say 

something, he'd sit through the whole class in meditation 

and then he'd leave and not say a word. 

SMITH: This is in the fifties already? 

WAGNER: No, that was later. And he always refused to have 

any photographs of his work done or reproduced anyplace. I 

don't know if he's still doing that, but that was his — 

"I'll never have anything reproduced." 

SMITH: Well, a lot of his stuff doesn't work if you see it 

in a photograph. 

WAGNER: Wouldn't reproduce anyway. It's pretty hard to 

reproduce a white painting, isn't it? 

SMITH: Were there other galleries that you were showing at 

at this time? 

WAGNER: Well, I had an exhibition in the Lucy Bayne 

Gallery, which was on Beverly [Boulevard] , about Robertson 


[Boulevard] . I had an exhibition there of my Navaho 
paintings. Lucy and Walter Bayne, they were Swedish. 
SMITH: Was she interested in showing avant-garde work, or 
was she more commercially oriented? 

WAGNER: I don't know. My paintings were totally abstract, 
I'd say that my Yeibichai [also known as The Navaho Night 
Chant] painting and the big one, those sort of-- In those 
days they weren't exactly what you would call 
conservative. She showed Leonard Kaplan and a lot of 
people like that. She was a nice lady, really. All she 
wanted was three paintings for an exhibition. Yeah, I had 
to give her three paintings to have an exhibition in the 
place. She didn't tell me that until the end. 
SMITH: Oh, you had to give her the paintings? 
WAGNER: Yeah. She didn't tell me that in the beginning, 
but I couldn't take three home. Then I was with another 
gallery there, it was called Foch Rayboff, Ernie Rayboff 
and Nina Foch. 
SMITH: The actress? 

WAGNER: Yeah. He just represented me. That was about 
three blocks from where the Lucy Bayne was at that time, on 
Beverly. I had exhibitions in different places, in Hermosa 
Beach and Manhattan Beach, Pacific Palisades. Different 
galleries. And with Silvan Simone. Before he was on 
Olympic [Boulevard] and Federal [Avenue] he was on Westwood 


Boulevard just south of Wilshire [Boulevard] . He was there 
for about eight years, I guess, seven or eight years. He 
had some interesting artists at that time. He sold a lot 
of art for me, that's why I went with Simone. Two 
galleries really sold art for me: one was Silvan Simone and 
one in Manhattan Beach called the Hickson Gallery, Russ 
[Russell] Hickson. Those two, and Simone 's gallery in the 
Palisades, which was called the Florentine, which was his 
gallery run by a German by the name of Edward Kneifel. 
SMITH: Now, when you worked with Simone, let's say Simone 
and Hickson, was there any- -did they try to influence your 
work at all? Did they say, "This is nice, but maybe you 
should do more of this?" 
WAGNER: No, never. Never once. 
SMITH: You brought in what you did and — 
WAGNER: Well, after my Indian period and I'd sold all 
those paintings, I couldn't keep painting those, so I 
started moving into my assemblage. He was so good, he'd 
take a chance on things. He was a pioneer type. He told 
the collectors, he said, "Well, this is a show I'll lose 
money on, but I'm going to give it to Gordon anyway, 
because I have to show a loss once in a while." That's the 
kind of guy-- But if I had a show, he'd talk the people 
into it, and they'd buy the works regardless. 
SMITH: Now, take Hickson in Manhattan Beach, what kind of 


work did he generally show? Were you typical of the kind 
of work he was showing or were you kind of on the extreme 
side of things? 

WAGNER: Well, he showed a lot of different kinds of 
artists: James Jarvaise, Francis De Erdely, Rico Lebrun 
and Henry Miller. A lot of people you don't know. He 
showed my old instructor, Norman [S.] Chamberlain, and 
people like that. Keith Crown, and people like Dave Miller 
and Frank Jensen and Ben Shaw. He had a nice group. No, 
my work wasn't far out at all. He was a very open 
person. He didn't sell junk. He didn't sell pretty 
paintings and pictures. No, that's why I liked him. 
SMITH: Did you participate in the the Monday night walks 
on La Cienega? 

WAGNER: Yeah, I used to go and see them walk around, check 
them out. I had a gallery there. At that time was 
probably, when, in the sixties? 
SMITH: Fifties, sixties, yeah. 

WAGNER: Well, the late fifties, early sixties. My gallery 
then was Bob [Robert] Comara [Gallery] right there, Melrose 
Place, back of [Felix] Landau [Gallery]. Oh, yeah. I had 
three or four shows in his place. 

SMITH: Now, did gallery owners seek you out, or did you 
have to go knock on doors? How did that work? How did it 
happen that-- How did representation happen? 


WAGNER: How was I asked, you mean? 

SMITH: Yeah. 

WAGNER: They asked me. I never knocked on any gallery 

door in my life, except in Europe. But never in America. 

I still won't. I don't really believe in it. 

SMITH: Now, Simone-- 

WAGNER: I've tried two recently, just to see what would 

happen, and I'm certainly glad I tried it because I 

realized I would never want to do it again, you know. 

SMITH: Who are these? 

WAGNER: Well, Jan Baum was one of them. 

SMITH: Here in Los Angeles? 

WAGNER: Yeah. She handled Bruce Houston and a lot of 

people, Betye Saar and Alison Saar. I figured, well, she 

might be interested. She wasn't the slightest bit 

interested in my work and didn ' t even know anything about 

my work, you know. 

SMITH: Did she look at any of the slides? 

WAGNER: Oh, she looked at them, but she said, "Well, 

there's really no-- I have no space for you, and time--" 

She really turned me off. 

SMITH: What was the other one? 

WAGNER: Who was it, now? Oh, Asher Faure. I was asked to 

go there by Janice Felgar, the photographer. Somebody that 

worked at Asher Fauer loved my work. I was in an 


exhibition at the Design Center, so they said, "Please come 
and show this to Betty Asher." 

So I walked in. I was looking at Michael [C] 
McMillen's show that time. Betty Asher came out and she 
was just-- She wasn't interested in talking to me. "She 
says, "Hello, Gordon, how are you?" That's all. She knew 
my name and who I was. Virginia [Copeland Wagner] said, 
"Would you like to see some of Gordon's work and slides?" 
She said, "I'm not the slightest bit interested, I know 
what he does." [laughter] Then Michael McMillen walks in, 
"Hi, Gordon, how are you?" and she disappeared into her 

SMITH: Yeah. At the time when you — 

WAGNER: That was enough. I don't need that. Before, I'd 
never asked a gallery for an exhibition in all my life, and 
I'm not about to do it again. That's it. No more. 
SMITH: Was there any question of being exclusively 
represented by one--like Simone didn't mind that you were 
also represented by Comara and Hickson? 


FEBRUARY 7, 1987 

WAGNER: Actually, when I was with [Silvan] Simone, I was 
with him from 1953 until about 1968. Then I went to 
Comara, and I wasn't represented by Simone anymore. I went 
to Comara, and I was with him from about '68, I guess, to 
about '74. I found Comara to be a very negative guy. I 
liked him, but he was negative, and he was always down. 
Somebody would want to buy something from me in there, and 
he'd say, "Well, there's something over here I think you'd 
like better." He talked the Sara Lee pies man out of 
buying a piece, you know, the big collector in Chicago. 
His daughter is a friend of mine from Eugene [Oregon] . He 
wanted it, and he saw the photograph in the brochure and 
wanted to know the price, and [Comara] didn't even bother 
to — And then he told Simone how business was, how terrible 
it was. He really disliked Simone because Simone was so 
positive. He threw Simone out of his gallery because he 
was saying how his art was selling and how he was doing 
such a great job. Couldn't stand it; Comara couldn't take 
that. Comsra had some good artists, don't get me wrong. 
He had a good eye. But when it came to selling and getting 
into it, there was something lacking in his personality 
that blocked. His wife was tremendous when she was alive, 
but she died. She ran the thing; she was the 


salesperson. But I like Bob. I don't know whatever 
happened to him; he Just dropped out. 

So anyway, I wanted to have a show of these boxes of 
mine in 1975, so I went to Simone and told him that I'd 
made a mistake and thought I'd like to come back to him. 
"No way! I'm not going to let you come back to my gallery 
ever, " he told me. 

I said, "I've got all these new boxes. I'm sorry, I 
made a mistake with Comara. How many times I have to tell 
you I'm sorry? I made a mistake." 

"I'm not going to take you back. I'll come and see 
what you're doing, but I'm not going to take you back." 

So he came down to Echo Park, and he looked over all 
the works. I'd been married to Virginia, you know, and 
he'd never met Virginia, really. So he got to talk to her, 
and he weakened. I had a nice hound dog type, and he loves 
hound dogs, hunting hounds, you know. And he weakened, 
"Let me see what you've got." We go downstairs. He says, 
"It's fantastic, but as long as you are with me, if you 
ever change again, you are never going to come back". 

I said, "Silvan, I was with you for ten years, or nine 
years, and I was always there, right? But you got me mad 
at you because you wanted to go fishing and hunting, and 
you fell in love with Jose Luis Cuevas, and you fell in 
love with [Rico] Lebrun, and you fell in love with 


[Roberto] Matta [Echaurren] , and you fell in love with 
[Raphael] Canogar, and you had no love for me. What did 
you want me to do when I felt rejected like a poor girl 
with no love?" 

"Well," he said, "I have to make money, and these 
people are selling." 

I said, "Well, that's not my fault because you're not 
selling my work. The people have to be educated, don't 
they? " 

"Well, let me see what I can do. When do you want to 
have this exhibition?" 

I said, "Whenever you say so". 

"Next spring," March, I think it was. "We have to 
make a catalog. I need the photographs and the whole 
thing. You come out, we'll put it together and design it 
and get it ready." 

So I had the show. I had twenty-one boxes in the 
show. His son had just come with him, and he was a 
musician who was a composer, Stephen Simone, and he didn't 
have the slightest idea about art. But he was going to be 
his partner because Thorn Andreolas had left. Thorn 
Andreolas went to Taos [New Mexico] and opened up his 
gallery. First, I got him this exhibition space to be the 
director of the Stables Gallery in Taos. He'd crossed 
Simone--he lied to him--and Simone fired him for a letter 


that he said he'd mailed and Thorn was still carrying it 
around and he was afraid to mail it. He carried it around 
for a month telling Simone he'd mailed it. Simone found 
out about it and hit the fan and got rid of him. Well, 
Thom's a big man now; he's about [gestures] so tall, 
[laughter] He's got the new gallery in Taos. They fired 
him from the Stables. I got him the job. I went out of my 
way to help this man get organized; he was so sad and 
down. Now he won't even write to me, talk to me, speak to 
me. You know, I helped him, so therefore he doesn't want 
me. After all that. 

So anyway, to get back to Silvan' s son, who is a sweet 
man, but he knew nothing. So what does he do in the 
exhibition opening? He takes these people-- I told him 
about the boxes, each box in the show, and he had a 
photographic memory. He's taking people at an opening 
around on a tour in groups of ten explaining each box to 
them, and what's inside, and all about it. And out of the 
twenty- two we sold nineteen boxes that day, you know. 

Simone says, "Well, are you happy?" 

I said yes. I said, "What about these other two boxes 

He said, "Well, the printer, he wants one for the 
trade of the catalog," which was, I don't know, $1,500 or 
$2,000. "He wants to trade you for one. And if you're any 


kind of a guy at all worthwhile, not a heel like some of my 
artist friends, you will give me one of these boxes for 
doing all of this for you." So, that took care of them. I 
had one left and by the end of the show, that was sold to a 
doctor who was one of his biggest collectors. 
SMITH: Now, you had left Simone earlier because he wasn't 
showing your work often enough? 

WAGNER: Right, he was not featuring me anymore. He wasn't 
interested, you know. He had love affairs with other 
artists. I mean, when he sold art, he'd go "Look! What 
you're looking at [is] a fantastic piece! How can you 
resist it?" And he'd get some poor soul trapped in there, 
[laughter] He had a beautiful gallery to do it in. I 
don't know if you remember the gallery or not, but-- 

WAGNER: It was an excellent gallery. It was one of the 
prettiest galleries in L.A. because it was out of all the 
mess. It was a big gallery in the front, maybe forty feet 
square, and then there was a patio garden that had an 
overhang that you walked out into, where he had his 
receptions and things, and that was all art. He had huge 
storage racks . Then you went into a room where there were 
just little drawings. Then all the way around his house 
he'd put a glass atrium, and the whole back between the 
house and the fence was all the gallery with gardens and 


trees. It was just gorgeous. It was a beautiful place. I 
said, "How come you're going to move into this place? 
Nobody's going to come down here." 

He said, "Zipcode 49. We have all the money. Don't 
you worry. They'll come here before they go to La 
Cienega," he says. And he was right. He built it, and he 
lived there. He lived in the house inside. 
SMITH: Were you also submitting every year to the Los 
Angeles County [Museum of History, Science, and Art] annual 

WAGNER: In the beginning, yeah, I usually would, until 
they canceled that out. I submitted to very few 
exhibitions, unless they were very important ones. In 
those days, they had very big shows. They don't do that 
anymore in museums, they just don't bother, like the 
Corcoran [Gallery] back East. 

SMITH: Like your picture that is in the Denver [Art] 
Museum, how did that get there? 

WAGNER: That was actually a competitive award, a purchase 
award. That's how it got there. 

SMITH: So you would keep track of what the various shows 
were that were going on around the country and decide if 
you wanted to submit? 
WAGNER: You mean in those days? 
SMITH: In those days, yeah. 


WAGNER: Not too much. There was one place in L.A. at that 
time, it was called Brugger ' s Fine Arts Fowarding Service, 
and they had a list of what was going on. That was it. 
And the newspaper, the [Los Angeles] Times, they would 
always announce these things in the Times for important 
exhibitions when Arthur Millier was the critic. They don't 
do that anymore either. They don't bother. 
SMITH: Another thing that Kienholz mentions in his 
interview is that in the late fifties, mid- to late 
fifties, there was an attitude of the younger artists, the 
artists around Ferus--! think he means more than that, the 
beat-generation group--that they were sick and tired of the 
art that was represented by [Lorser] Feitelson and [Howard] 
Warshaw and [Keith] Finch, and he runs off a list of names 
along with those, art that they thought was just crap and 
that they wanted to get away from and destroy. How did you 
feel at that time? Did you share that kind of a feeling, 
that that generation was pretty much crap? 

WAGNER: That's exactly why I didn't have anything more to 
do with them, because that sort of attitude, sort of snob 
attitude of Hollywood. It was strictly a Hollywood clique, 
the whole bunch of them. I mean, all of them were a 
Hollywood clique, young, semi-beat people. They were all 
friends; half of them knew each other from Kansas and other 
parts of the United States. There was a snob thing about 


that group. I've been in fights with artists of that 
group, on what you're saying, like [Craig] Kauffman, and 
Bob Irwin, and people like that, people who berated other 
artists and put them down, that their work was no good, 
while they're standing there showing me one line and a 
scribble on a piece of butcher's paper that's in an 
exhibition, calling that the great, you know. That's what 
really turned me off to the whole lot of them. I still 
have never forgiven most of them, because I still don't 
think they're that important, most of them. They're living 
on their own publicity and believing it. I still don't 
think they should be featured as the "syndicate" artists, 
because I don't think they really warrant it. You can't-- 
I appreciate all artists. I mean, they have a right to be 
artists and they have a right to their expression just the 
way they are, whatever they want to do. If they want to 
paint it with feces, or pee on it, or burn it with 
cigarettes, or draw on it, fine. But they should not go 
around putting down other artists who are doing a different 
expression. This defeats the whole philosophy of artists 
and painters. Although, it's common. I think one time 
there was in the- -at some place in Spain there was a large 
Rubens, and they commissioned El Greco to paint a painting, 
I believe, in there. And he said, "I wouldn't bother at 
all in here unless I can paint over all this crap that's on 


the wall." So it goes back several centuries that artists 
think this way. I don't believe in negating other 
artists. There's always going to-- Artists are limited by 
their own limitations, and if a guy can't do any better 
than he's doing, that's his problem. But not to cut him 
down, not to cut down people like Lebrun, who gave his soul 
and his heart and his love for his drawings and his work 
and was a powerful artist. If I took a Lebrun and a 
Warshaw and a Keith Finch and put the three up against the 
wall and I took one of those guys--I'm not going to talk 
about them; just forget them--and put one of their works in 
between, you wouldn't even notice their work it would be so 
weak and wishy-washy. I'm not being old-fashioned about 
art. I just don't think that Warshaw and Finch and Lebrun 
and Channing Peake and Bob [Robert] Chuey and Herb 
[Herbert] Jepson and [Michael] Murphy, who were instructors 
to all these half-wits and taught them all they knew from 
the beginning, to have them turn around on their own 
instructors and belittle them and call themselves a power 
when they had nothing going at all-- Nobody cared about 
them. Nobody cared about Warshaw; he was a minor figure. 
Finch struggled; but he had his own problems to confront. 
And as for Lebrun, he was a very powerful European man who 
became very sick and died. He had a different soul than 
these people. How can this brash bunch of Hollywood 


[people with] surface to about down to here in life go 
around putting down a man who's got a soul thirty feet 
deep? Because they were just a bunch of snots in those 
days. Just young; wanted to change the world. How the 
hell could they change the world? The dadaists did it 
years ago. They were trying to do something the dadaists 
had already done. Neo-dadaism has got to be very boring. 
SMITH: We have a lot of places to go with this, but you 
said you got into a number of fights, not physical 

WAGNER: Just discussions. 
SMITH: Discussions. 

WAGNER: Arguments. Usually we came to some kind of-- I 
always walked out of the place feeling that I hadn't a 
problem, but the others would take offense. So that 
meant-- Naturally, if an artist takes offense to somebody 
else, that means his own work is weak in the first place, 
right? Because you don't take offense to somebody who-- 
Like if it had been Feitelson or Lebrun or one of those 
guys and they said, "I hate your art," they'd say, "That's 
great! I love it; it's better than giving me some false 
criticism of it. I'm glad to hear you hate it. It makes 
me happy." You see? But these guys, if you would mention 
anything, "What is this that you're doing that is so deeply 
evolved here?" [grumbles] They'd get going and they'd 


come over in groups and want to fist fight you, you know. 

Well, you see, that shows a sign of weakness right there. 

I laughed at it, you know, and would walk out of the place 

with a couple of writer friends of mine. 

SMITH: Kienholz, in his oral history, says-- 

WAGNER: He was never that way. Never that way. Kienholz 

was a real person. Not anything to do with that group at 


SMITH: Yeah, he left in '58, I guess. 

WAGNER: Had nothing to do with that group. 

SMITH: He said in his oral history that he really doesn't, 

he never knew much about art history. I don't know if this 

is true or not, but this is what he said in his oral 


WAGNER: I doubt if he did. I doubt if he really did. 

SMITH: And he wasn't interested. 

WAGNER: He wasn't interested in it, no. 

SMITH: What about, from your perception--did the people in 

the group, the Ferus group, seem to know much of art 

history? Did they know about dada? 

WAGNER: We never discussed any of those kinds of things, 

because I don ' t think any of them even worried about art 

history. A lot of these guys were like they were inventing 

the typewriter, you know? Like it had never been done 



SMITH: Well, what about you at that time, were you-- 

WAGNER: I wasn't interested in art history. I looked at 

books and paintings, contemporary art magazines, but I 

never really was interested in art history at that time. I 

didn't really get into art history until I went to Europe 

and got involved in living there and seeing and feeling, 

understanding that these guys are a bunch of second-rate 

citizens. You know, when you go to Europe and you see real 

art, you know, real masters. We're the only country in the 

world that gets away with this kind of stuff. Because 

Hollywood's big, powerful media. Gave it a lot of impact 

in those days. Now they don't even — they Ignore those 


SMITH: Well, I'm not sure what you mean by that. 

WAGNER: Hollywood is not even interested in artists. 

SMITH: Would you explain what you mean by that, I'm not 

getting it. 

WAGNER: Well, in those days, Hollywood gave all those 

people big impact. They were all in a clique. The 

filmmakers, and the artists, and the writers, and the 

poets, and the faggots, and all these people, they all 


SMITH: You mean in the sixties? 

WAGNER: — together, and it was a very synthetic world. 

SMITH: In the sixties are we talking about? 


WAGNER: Yeah. 

SMITH: Say at the time of that big show in '66, the Six 

Los Angeles Artists show? 

WAGNER: You mean in the museum? 

SMITH: At the [ Los Angeles] County Museum of Art. 

WAGNER: Most of them were in that show, naturally. 

They were in it, sure. But I always felt that you could 

never become part of their clique, you know? They lived in 

another world over there. I never was part of Hollywood in 

my life, and I'm still never going to be part of Hollywood, 

because it's a symbol that I don't like, you know. They 

built it up. They've got enough media people on television 

and movies and documentary films, all different ways of 

building up that particular group. And then, of course, 

all of the galleries have cashed in on them to take a loss, 

Dwan Gallery, and people like that. 

SMITH: Do you think that group was built up- -is it your 

feeling, your reaction, that that group was built up at the 

expense of other artists in the area, not just the older 

artists, but a broader range of artists? 

WAGNER: Well, by that group forming, it's excluded about 

90 percent of the artists in California. Yeah, the powers 

to be. It's changing now, though, because I've noticed now 

that a lot of the old museum directors and curators are not 

men anymore, and the women are interested in other ways of 


thinking, I think. They're becoming more tolerant to the 

other artists, and it's coming back, slowly. I think these 

guys will just be a passing fancy. You can't live with 

minimal art for the rest of your life, you know. It's 


SMITH: Let me ask you, in terms of the artist groups that 

you were involved in, were there any black artists or 

Mexican artists, Mexican-American artists? 

WAGNER: In that group, or any group? 

SMITH: The groups that you were involved with. 

WAGNER: I was involved in the Sixty-six Signs of Neon 

group with Noah Purifoy and Judson Powell and John 

Outterbridge, and a lot of black artists. 

SMITH: What about in terms of the Los Angeles art 

community, was it an integrated community? Were there 

blacks and Chicanes involved? 

WAGNER: Oh, sure. Oh, yeah. Yeah, there were always 

blacks and Chicano artists in California. Oh, yeah. 

SMITH: But were they involved in the galleries? Same 

things you were going to? Who were some of the people that 

you knew? 

WAGNER: Mel Edwards was one, who was a sculptor, black 

sculptor. I knew all of these guys I just mentioned, these 

black artists. There was a lot of Chicano art--Frank 

Romero and Chavez, and all of that group from Los Four. 


There's always been a connection; even Indians, American 

Indians, Navaho Indians. I was involved there, I had an 

exhibition once--well, three of us were actually having an 

exhibition together at Simone Gallery: Roland Reese and-- 

SMITH: Roland Reese is black? 

WAGNER: Roland Reese is white. He was in Denver then, he 

was a painter. He wasn't doing the environments, he was 

actually doing painting. And Carl Gorman, who was R. C. 

Gorman's father, who was a Navaho, who was an excellent 

painter. [R. C.] Gorman is a commercial hack, you know, 

just knock them out sort of thing. But actually, his 

father was a painter. We were with Simone there. He had 

Mexican artists, Cuevas and [Leonel] G6ngora. 

SMITH: But in Los Angeles, within the Los Angeles 

community, were the black artists, the Mexican-American 

artists at the same galleries, were they at the same 


WAGNER: They had the Brockman Gallery on Degnan Boulevard 

that's been going for years, a black gallery in the 

Crenshaw district. They showed wonderful black artists' 

works, you know. 

SMITH: One gets the sense that it was only a handful of 

white artists who became important in terms of Los Angeles 

in the fifties and sixties. 

WAGNER: It's true. The others were rejected by the Ferus 


Gallery, who took it over. They were the ones who really 

were responsible for cutting everything down of all the 

other artists, and just building this one group, the 

"syndicate. " 

SMITH: What about women artists in Los Angeles in the 

fifties and sixties? 

WAGNER: Oh, there were lots of women artists. 

SMITH: Such as? 

WAGNER: They're not-- There were hundreds and hundreds of 

male artists and hundreds and hundreds of women artists, 

and they were all exhibiting somewhere, in galleries and 

museums. But when it came to the international scene and 

the big scene, they were cut out, just like that, to this 

select group. And that's why, the reason, right now 

artists are getting a little bit irritated by it, I'm 

sure. Especially by the new museums, where they're still 

cut out, most of the California artist, along with a few 

others, and show all over the world, different places, to 

be cut out of an exhibition that's supposed to be a museum 

for Los Angeles artists, and then it's all New York. Or 

these damn galleries that-- Few "syndicates, " you know. 

It'll always be that way until they get rid of the powers 

that be. 

SMITH: The powers that be, who are? 

WAGNER: Well, New York, basically. [Leo] Castelli, Walter 


Hopps . 

SMITH: You got into a fistfight with Walter Hopps once. 

WAGNER: Well, not a fistfight. I just punched him. No, 

he didn't retaliate. [laughter] 

SMITH: Could you explain what happened? 

WAGNER: Well, he just wanted all of the artists to be-- 

have nothing to do with the other artists in town, stay 

away from all other artists and just be exclusive. 

SMITH: He told this to the — 

WAGNER: He told that to the group, and Dane Dixon said, 

"Punch the son of a bitch in the nose." 

SMITH: Where did this take place? 

WAGNER: In the Ferus Gallery. 

SMITH: In the Ferus Gallery. About what time, do you 


WAGNER: What year? 

SMITH: What year, yeah. 

WAGNER: Probably in the sixties. 

SMITH: Were you drunk at the time? 

WAGNER: No, it was the late fifties. 

SMITH: So you were kind of angry, and-- 

WAGNER: Oh, I really used to get really, emotionally angry 

in those days with people who came up with that kind of 

garbage. I didn't care who he was. 

SMITH: So you heard him say this, or-- I'm trying to 


reconstruct the circumstances. You were all in the Ferus 
Gallery, and Walter Hopps was talking-- 

WAGNER: With Jim [James] Elliott and a few other people, a 
few other directors. 

They all came one time, I remember, to an exhibition 
at Sears Roebuck in Westwood that was put on by Arthur 
Secunda. There was an Invitational show for 150 artists in 
the show. We each had a space, like fifteen to twenty 
pieces. It opened on the night that [John F.] Kennedy was 
shot, that day, so it had a rather depressed start. So 
they didn't open it until the next night, the following 
day. All of this group, all of these young shavetails, you 
know, young guys that looked like little babies. There was 
Walter, and there was Jim Elliott, a couple of other museum 
directors, all walking through the place all dressed up in 
suits and neckties and looking very, very efficient, and 
not speaking to a soul in the place. They were all in the 
exhibition; they were all represented, every one of them. 
But it was something. I'll never forget that scene as long 
as I live. You could see how that whole clique was 
embedded right there and who ran it, locked right in. 

This is what I'm talking about. Then I said, "You 
poor, unfortunate people who have sold out for the rest of 
your lives, you can't even make art, you've got to get some 
guy in Santa Monica to make your art for you." 


SMITH: Meaning? What are you talking about? 

WAGNER: There's a guy in Santa Monica that makes all their 

art for them. They just order it, and they make it, the 

plastic stuff. They don't do anything. They just give 

them a design and they make it. 

SMITH: Well, it's their design, though. 

WAGNER: Yeah, I know. Send me fifty pieces for a show in 

New York; send me fifty pieces for a show in Chicago, all 

the same, you know. There's a guy in Santa Monica that 

does that kind of stuff. I met him one time at Renata 

Druck ' s party. He told me he does it for all of them. 

SMITH: Did you — 

WAGNER: That's not sincere to me when an artist has 

somebody else building their art for them. There's nothing 

there, they're just a bunch of commercial hacks! It's sad. 

And they are the ones who they actually publicize, and the 

museums haven't got brains enough to know that, they've 

been so brainwashed, you know. 

SMITH: Did you ever apologize to Hopps? 

WAGNER: Oh, yeah, we're friends. I've seen him a lot of 

times, he says, "Gordon, how ya doing? What you think 

about opening a gallery in Topanga Canyon," when he's about 

ready to steal an assemblage out of George [Herms]'s house. 

[laughter] "I've got to come and see what you're doing." 

SMITH: Does he come and see what you're doing? 


WAGNER: No. Richmond Art Center, somebody was having a 

class there-- 

SMITH: Where Tom [Thomas] Marioni was? 

WAGNER: Somebody was having a class up there at Richmond 

Art Center in San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley or-- 

SMITH: Richmond. 

WAGNER: Richmond. This young student told me, "I was 

talking the other day to my teacher about you, and I said, 

'Well, Gordon Wagner told me this, ' and this man came 

around from the back of the wall and said, 'Where the 

hell's Gordon Wagner, tell him hello.' And he said, 'Who 

are you?' And he said, 'My name's Walter Hopps.'" 

[laughter] This is about a year or two ago. I like Walter 

as a person. I think he's-- He has a nice personality. 

He had a mental breakdown too, you know, himself. 
Arthur Secunda took over his class. But he was-- No, I 
have nothing against Walter Hopps at all now. I think he's 
okay. It's just a question. I have nothing against any of 
these people, they can do whatever they want to do. But I 
think they're being too exclusive in the museums by only 
including a few of the-- Like [Henry] Geldzahler in New 
York: I remember I read something he made a statement on 
one time. He said, "The artists have got to be tough on 
themselves. Because from now on in the art [world], there 
aren't going to be any new discoveries. We're going to 


take the older artists and put them in the cartel and leave 

it that way." You see? And that's what's happening. 

SMITH: Well, back at this time, in the mid-fifties, late 

fifties, early sixties, were you a beatnik? 

WAGNER: Well, I was a little old to be beat, but I was 

always with the beats. I guess you might have called me an 

older beat. The beat generation in the fifties were 

probably in their twenties, right? 

SMITH: Yeah. 

WAGNER: And in the fifties I was in my forties. I was 

very sympathetic to the beats, and I hung out at all their 

beat coffeehouses. They visited me, and they liked me, in 

Topanga Canyon. Topanga was sort of a dropping-off place 

between San Francisco and Venice. It was a very active 

place for beats. Yeah, and I loved the beat poets, and I 

knew the beats, and I went to the Gashouse, the beat scene, 

and other coffeehouses, at Bob [Robert] De Witt's in 


SMITH: Were you writing poetry at the time? 

WAGNER: Yeah, I'd written some. I never wrote poetry, I 

wrote word pictures. I was never a poet in the sense of 

being a poet, you know, just word pictures. 

SMITH: Okay. Well, briefly continuing the chronology, you 

stayed in Topanga, then your wife died, then you moved to 

Mexico. When did you come back to the United States, then. 


after then? 

WAGNER: Well, I moved down there for about two years, two 
or three years. I came back about 1962, back to Topanga . 
SMITH: Same place or different? 

WAGNER: No, I rented-- I knew this friend, a girl in 
Topanga who used to eat with me at Bob De Witt's, and she 
was going away. She wanted me to rent her house, because 
she didn't know how long she would be gone. She might be 
gone for a year or ten years. So she had a great studio 
downstairs and the house on the top, all nice windows. It 
was just gorgeous. Well, I rented it for $40 a month. A 
beautiful place. At the end of the year, she came back, so 
I had to move. I moved down to the Silver Lake district. 
Echo Park area . 

SMITH: You knew [Ramblin'] Jack Eliot? 

WAGNER: Oh, yeah, I knew him in Topanga when he used to 
sit on the highway and sort of entertain people while they 
were changing tires on their cars, and help people along 
the road. He'd always travel on the road with his guitar. 
That ' s before he went to Spain on his motorcycle and fell 
into the lake. [laughter] He always told me that story. 
He was going around this curve, and he doesn't know what 
happened at all, but the next thing, the motorcycle and 
himself were both in the lake. [laughter] Yeah, I liked 
Jack Eliot. He's a sweet man. 


SMITH: And Lord Buckley you knew? 

WAGNER: Oh, yeah, the Lord lived there. He lived in a 

place called Buchanan Flats, and they'd set up this old, 

kind of an auto-camp house. 

SMITH: Why was he called Lord Buckley? 

WAGNER: Well, he classified himself as that. All the 

people were princes or princesses, and his wife was Lady 

Buckley. Lady Buckley wore pink leotards and danced 

about, A beautiful person, really. She spent most of her 

time up out of Las Vegas in Mattress City, where he had 

five acres of mattresses stretched out across the land, and 

they would dance and spring in the mattresses. That's 

where Lady Buckley spent most of her time. He was so 

square! He wouldn't even allow a porch swing on his back 

porch. [laughter] 

"Lord" --this is viewing the Grand Canyon- -"Lord, look 
at that." [imitates Buckley] "What a gasser, that's the 
biggest ditch I've ever seen." [laughter] 

He was a marvelous man. Great voice; one of the 
greatest voices I think we've had, according to Henry 
Miller; he even thinks that. And ad-libbed right off the 
top of his head. He'd come out with things and really make 
you laugh. 

SMITH: Did you know [Jack] Kerouac or Neil Cassidy? 
WAGNER: No, I never met either Kerouac or Neil Cassidy. I 


met [Gregory] Corso and [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti and Snyder, 

Gary Snyder, those sorts of people. From San Francisco 


SMITH: Down in Topanga, or-- 

WAGNER: I met them in Topanga. I met two of them-- I met 

Ferlinghetti in San Francisco, but I met the other two in 


SMITH: Did you think of Topanga as being a place that had 

spiritual power? 

WAGNER: Oh, yeah, energy; great place. Great place for 

just about everything. It does have a-- It has its own-- 

It's a music canyon, that's what it is. 

SMITH: What do you mean by that? 

WAGNER: I don't know, it just generates music. It just 

comes out of the rocks and mountains. 

SMITH: So there was something special about it that wasn't 

in, say, Beverly Glen or Laurel Canyon or-- 

WAGNER: Oh, different altogether than Laurel Canyon, 

that's Hollywood, you know. And the [San Fernando] Valley 

was different, and Malibu was different. No, Topanga was 

an isolated community that was full of people who just 

wanted to get away from all of those other things. 

Eccentrics, absolutely. No, it was-- There was a 

ruralness, but yet there was a sophistication. There was 

an intellect, and there was the primitive. It had all of 


these different facets that you can't get in a homogenized 

place like Laurel Canyon, full of corporate people and 

company-oriented types and professionals. Never had any of 

that in Topanga . Now they do, I'm sure, but they didn't in 

those days. I'm sure they found it now and ruined it. It 

can't be the same. 

SMITH: You never lived in Venice? 

WAGNER: Yeah, I lived in Venice. I lived there for about 

a year, not quite, nine months. I lived in May Murray's 

boudoir, down by the Ballona Creek bridge in an old 

Moorish- type house. I had a nice studio there, 

temporarily. I liked it. 

SMITH: You mentioned before that after your wife died, you 

never really worked again. 


FEBRUARY 7, 1987 

SMITH: Well, Gordon, I wanted to ask you how and where you 
met Virginia [Copeland Wagner], your second wife, and when. 
WAGNER: I met Virginia in 1963 in Oaxaca, Mexico, on the 
evening of December 18 in the atrium of the Soledad church 
at a fiesta for the patron saint of Oaxaca, the Virgin of 

SMITH: Like those drawings, you captured that in the 
drawings in the exhibit. 

WAGNER: They were with the fireworks and all of the 
Indians. A huge celebration, because it is one of the 
biggest celebrations in Oaxaca. And, funny, in the 
afternoon I met a woman who I had talked to in the 
drugstore in front of the house where I lived in Oaxaca, 
and we were talking about Arizona and New Mexico and 
Navahos and whatnot. And she said, "I have a friend here 
in Oaxaca that lived with the Navahos; you might like to 
meet her." And this same lady, with her friend, came to 
the fiesta. I saw them, and she walked over, introduced me 
to Virginia, and I said, Yata-hel, in Navaho, which means 
hello. And that is when she said Yata-hei back. So we 
talked a little bit. I lifted her up so she could see over 
the heads of all these people, the fireworks, the 
castillos, and she got very indignant about that. 


SMITH: You didn't ask her if you could pick her up? 
WAGNER: No, I just liked her, so I picked her clear up. 
[laughter] She disappeared on me after that. I used to 
see her around Oaxaca, and she'd wave, but she always had 
somebody with her, people walking with her. She had very 
long hair and braided yarn in her pony tail. It was 
beautiful to see her walking. I drove around in my old 
jeep a lot. One day I'm drawing in my studio, and there 
was a knock on the door. It was Virginia asking me--well, 
my friend was with me, Hedy [Mergenthaler] , my Swiss 
mistress--if we'd like to come for a drink at their place 
in the Pension Suisse, which was in Oaxaca, where they were 
staying, for a couple of days from then. I thought it was 
a good idea. I don't know about Hedy, what she thought of 
the idea. So we went to the party, and I remember I drank 
up most all their scotch. At least that's what Virginia 
told me later. Then I took her around to different places, 
she and her friend, to different villages and some other 
fiestas, a New Year's Eve party in Teotitlan del Valle, 
which is a weaving town of Oaxaca. And she danced. She 
was a dancer from New York; she lived at that time in Santa 
Fe, New Mexico. She was teaching dance and had a school at 
the fine arts museum in Santa Fe [Museum of New Mexico] . I 
didn't see anymore of her after that, I took off. I was 
going back to the United States just about the time I met 


her. I didn't see her anymore until about 1967. I had a 

friend who lived in Rustic Canyon who went to Saint John's 

College in Santa Fe, and I said, "Well, I think it would be 

nice if you met this lady, Virginia, you'd like her." So 

it was kind of a liaison I was establishing between us. 

They kept in contact, and when Virginia came to California, 

she came to stay with my friend in Rustic Canyon. Well, I 

was teaching in Rustic Canyon that day when she showed up, 

and I just picked her up. [laughter] 

SMITH: Again without asking her? 

WAGNER: She didn't complain that time. I'd already 

separated from my mistress. She ran off with my best 

friend in Mexico a year before. A guy named Paul. We went 

on a trip down there, and she just decided she wanted to go 

with him. So I was a year without any lady. 

SMITH: Can I ask you — 

WAGNER: So Virginia came along about the right time. We 

were married in 1967 on a rock in Topanga Canyon by I 

Ching. And then we were married by the justice of peace in 

Albuquerque [New Mexico] in July. 

SMITH: Of '67? 

WAGNER: Yeah, first we were married May 30, then in July 

by the justice of the peace. That's nineteen years ago, 

isn't it? 

SMITH: Then you were married again when you became 


Catholics. When you converted to Catholicism you were 

married for a third time? 

WAGNER: I was married twice again to her. That was way 

back. [The Catholic ceremony] was only six years ago. 

SMITH: Why do you refer to Hedy as your mistress and not 

just your girlfriend? You always use that term. 

WAGNER: Well, she wasn't a girlfriend, she lived with 

me. She was my lady, I guess you'd call her. 

SMITH: There's no special reason. 

WAGNER: We're still good friends, Hedy and I are good 

friends. She lives in Mount Washington. She has a good 

job with a Mexican airline, one of the managers. Yeah, 

we're good friends. 

SMITH: And Virginia, when you met her she was a dancer? 

WAGNER: Yeah, she taught dance in Santa Fe, she had a 

school. And she was a dancer in New York before that, in 

dance companies. She had her school there in Columbia 


SMITH: After you married her, is that when you moved to 

New Mexico, or did she move to Echo Park? 

WAGNER : She moved to Echo Park . I haven ' t been back to 

Mexico since. 

SMITH: New Mexico. 

WAGNER: No, I haven't been back to Mexico since, but New 

Mexico, we used to go back and forth to New Mexico in the 


sununer. Stay for two or three months. 

SMITH: You haven't been back to Mexico-- 

WAGNER : No . 

SMITH: --since 19677 Not once? 


SMITH: Not even to cross the border? 

WAGNER : No . 

SMITH: Why not? 

WAGNER: I don't know, just never have any desire to go 

anymore . 

SMITH: That whole side of you is now gone? 

WAGNER: Just disappeared. 

SMITH: Disappeared. 

WAGNER: I was talking to a friend of mine last night, he 

was kind of keying me up to go back. I don't think it's 

the same as it was when I was there, you know. It's 

probably changed so much, the different places. But you 

never know, it might still be fine-- Because a lot of 

people go back there and love it, you know. 

SMITH: Well, once when we were talking you mentioned that 

after Alcatraz, after the Indians occupied Alcatraz, that 

you felt you really shouldn' t--it was becoming more 

difficult to do the Indian motifs in your work. 

WAGNER: After Alcatraz? 

SMITH: After the Indians occupied Alcatraz. So in 


general, about this time you're moving away from the 
Mexican and the Indian and the Asian influences in your 
work, after '67? 

WAGNER: Yeah, I think I'd already been through it. I 
mean, our lives change. We go through different cycles 
about every seven or eight years, different values and 
different ways of seeing and doing things. Different 
blondes or redheads or brunettes; some guys change women, 
and other people change moods, and countries, and feelings. 
I think that it's always underneath; you never forget those 
things, they're always underneath. You're not divorcing 
them out of your mind. But I don't think you have to 
dwell on them forever, I think you can move on to other 
things . 

SMITH: This is a followup question from our last session, 
but in Icon to Great Railroads, you take all these railroad 
things that you've found. The railroads were one of the 
main ways of destroying the Indian way of life in the 
western part of the United States, and you take all these 
railroad objects, and then you construct them into 
something that looks like an Indian piece of art. I mean, 
to me there's a social comment in it. 

WAGNER: Well, railroad pieces to me don't really go along 
with that. Railroad pieces to me-- The railroad was a very 
romantic piece of machinery, especially the old railroads. 


SMITH: But the old railroads were what destroyed the 
Indians, or one of the things that destroyed the Indian way 
of life, the laying down of the railroads. 
WAGNER: Did I say that? 
SMITH: No, you didn't say that. 

WAGNER: I never thought I said it, because I don't think 
the old railroads ever destroyed the Indians' way of life, 
not at all. Indians could care less about the railroad. 
There were people-- In fact, I don't think the Indians' way 
of life is destroyed at all; I think their way of life is 
stonger than ours, because they have the inner soul of-- An 
Indian will always be an Indian, and we can't ever be an 
Indian or know what the Indian's thinking, no way. They're 
Indians. I don't care if we were here for ten thousand 
more years, we could never understand the Indians' way of 
life, because their nature-- They have their own spirits 
and their own gods and their own values. The railroad 
could go through the reservation, they'd take what they 
could off of it. If something was thrown away, they'd use 
it. They would take advantage of the railroad, because the 
railroad to them would be just — They don't use the 
railroad themselves, and actually railroads don't go 
through their reservations in any place. The reservations 
are set apart. Like the Navaho reservation is-- A third of 
Arizona belongs to the Navahos, and the railroad runs along 


the edge of it. Indians don't live anyplace near the 
railroad. When the settlers in the West came out, they 
wanted to kill the Indians, but they came in covered 
wagons, and they came by horse, and they came in a lot of 
ways before the railroad came along. Actually, the 
railroad employed Indians to build the railroad. It didn't 
bother them if they were laying ties or doing something 
else. I don't think the railroad destroyed the Indians at 
all, the way of life, because the Apaches are very alive; 
the Navahos are alive; the Hopis are alive; the Paiutes are 
alive; the Sioux and the Shoshone, they're all alive. The 
ones who have lost some of their culture are maybe the 
Osage and the Indians who own oil wells in Oklahoma, some 
of them. Not in the Southwest. 


FEBRUARY 14, 1987 

SMITH: Today I wanted to get into a discussion of your 

boxes. It's a big topic. Can you tell me when you 

started? When did you begin to make boxes? 

WAGNER: Well, my first boxes were different from the boxes 

of today. My first boxes were actually made in Mexico 

using a lot of the objects found in Mexico, in junk places 

and out in the graveyards and carnivals and whatnot, where 

I could pick up objects. Those boxes were related to a lot 

of the Day of the Dead and humorous things about Mexico in 

sort of a funky way. 

SMITH: This was in the early sixties? 

WAGNER: Yeah, yeah. 

SMITH: At the same time you were doing Fioneraria and 

Between Heaven and Hell? 

WAGNER: Yeah, right, early sixties, exactly. Then the 

development started, and I went through various ways of 

doing boxes with different expressions. They became the 

object, but I got away from Mexico. A lot of the boxes 

were almost like putting objects in, like assemblage 

pieces, you know, but they usually were a narrative in 

mind. But there was still that old material, old rusty 

toys or rusty trains and things, rusty pieces of wood and 

junk and metal, related to painting in the background. 


SMITH: Now, in Mexico, in Mexican folk art, you have the 
arks, and the cathedrals, sporting scenes, where all the 
little clay figures are put together. There's even a box 
form where the folk artists will just put in like a whole 
kitchen, all these little toy kitchen utensils. Were you 
familiar with those kinds of things? 

WAGNER: Oh, yeah. I used to enjoy looking at them, but I 
never really used that as a stimulation for my work, 
because that kind of narrative didn't interest me. Mine 
was more on the humor and dada relationship. 
SMITH: You were in Oaxaca in the early sixties, right? 
WAGNER : Yeah . 

SMITH: Did you know any of the artists who worked-- Indian 
artists or Mexican artists, folk artists, who worked in 
Oaxaca, like Teodora Blanco in [Santa Maria de] Atzompa? 
WAGNER: Well, I met them, I met a few, but basically I was 
doing my own work. Artists just don't socialize much in 
Oaxaca. Even [Rufino] Tamayo was around there at one time, 
you know. But no, that-- I knew a few in Oaxaca, painters, 
Figueroa, people like this. And Laventa. A few people 
that I actually came in contact with by looking for 
objects, they seemed to be interested in the same sort of 
thing that I was, and I got to know them pretty well. I 
was really into my own work there, completely. And really 
feeling Mexico, the Indian of the Zapotec and their 


culture. I knew more anthropologists than I knew 
artists. They were studying the Oaxacan market system. 
They said it was the most complex market system in the 
world, the traveling market, everyday it went to a 
different town. They seemed to interest me more, because I 
was sort of being-- Constructing my boxes and doing my 
objects, I was sort of an anthropologist in my own rights, 
by using the things of their culture and rearranging them. 
SMITH: What were the boxes that you did in the early 
sixties, then? 

WAGNER: Well, a lot of boxes that I did at that time were 
the Day of the Dead, The Devil Set the Church on Fire. The 
titles are numerous ; I'm trying to remember some of the 
better ones. The Bracero. A lot of boxes related to love 
and Indians. There was one box in particular that I really 
liked (it's in a collection now), called The Spectator. 
SMITH: Could you — 

WAGNER: It belongs in a collection. 
SMITH: Whose collection? 

WAGNER: I'm trying to remember her name. She lives in 
Santa Monica. Paula Fishman. She was with Anhalt Gallery 
for years. That particular box was using a cardboard piece 
of folk art they call entierro, or the interment. When you 
turn the crank, the procession, the funeral procession, 
came up- -first came the people carrying the coffin, then 


came the procession, and then came the priest, and it went 
around on an endless belt. It came up through the devil's 
mouth and went down through the gates of heaven, around and 
around it went on a crank. I had bones on the box sticking 
out. Then they made coffins that you pulled the string and 
the corpse would look out of the hole in the coffin, and I 
had that centered in the piece. So every time the funeral 
passed above or underneath the man in the coffin, I had it 
hooked up so that he would pop out of the coffin to look at 
his own funeral. He was the spectator. It's a beautiful 

The other one was the Day of the Dead box I did for 
another collector by the name of Niels Baggi, who was a 
great collector of those sort of boxes. He was one of 
my collectors from the [Silvan] Simone Gallery. He had one 
where the coffin was on the table, and all of these things 
were going on in the foreground. You'd pull the string on 
the outside and the man popped up to look at all of the 
people and things about him. You could look up in the 
corner and you could see him in the mirror from the box, so 
he didn't--you could still see him, it was reflected 
down. These were funny boxes at that time, in Mexico. 
Using things off the street: pieces of this, fragments of 
that, angels and devils and all sorts of metals. But not 
busy, not just thrown together, but a narrative. Less is 


more. Down to the essence, but using black velvet and 

laces and all these things. 

SMITH: How did Simone feel about your boxes? 

WAGNER: Well, about The Spectator box, in particular, I 

remember he had it in the very front of the gallery on the 

wall as you came in. He had about three hunting dogs, and 

one of the hunting dog's names was Kasha. And every 

morning. Kasha would go in the door, go over to The 

Spectator, and sit up and howl, and bay and bay at this 

piece that was in the gallery at that time, before it was 

sold to Paula Fishman out of that show. So Simone always 

felt that my works--as I told you once before, I was a 

risk, you know. He just respected me for what I did, and 

my free spirit, you know. 

SMITH: Did your boxes sell? 

WAGNER: Oh, yeah. Well, that one sold. 

SMITH: Much better than the assemblages? 

WAGNER: About the same, yeah. 

SMITH: But you said that the assemblages hardly sold at 


WAGNER: That's right, in the very beginning, but he did 

sell some assemblages. In the first show, as I said, my 

assemblages, people didn't hardly see them, except the 

critic, [Arthur] Millier, who gave me a great review on the 

assemblages, and sort of didn't pay much attention to the 



SMITH: The boxes are somewhat of an unusual art form. 
Conceptually, what were you drawing on when you decided to 
put things into a box form? Were you already familiar with 
the work of [Joseph] Cornell? 

WAGNER: Well, I was familiar with Cornell, but I really 
wasn't that much interested in Cornell at that moment, or 
any other artist of box construction, actually. I wasn't 
even stimulated by other artists at that point, because I 
was in Mexico so much I didn't see them. Actually, the 
thing that really got me into boxes, I think was that it 
was a lot more--it fit better for me to combine objects and 
work in three dimensions than on a two-dimensional 
surface. I was tired of painting; I'd painted too long. It 
was an excitement to move through assemblage. And I knew 
that assemblage--! was going to get into something else, 
and the box just manifested itself for me from these old 
funky boxes like I'm talking about in Mexico. They got 
more concise, more symbolic, for a while. I was using-- In 
the mid-sixties, '67, '68, during the revolution of the 
psychedelics and whatnot, there was a great period in there 
when everything was spiritual and centered, mandalic in 
form. And the mandala, I went into that pretty much, and I 
created probably a hundred boxes related to centered forms, 
the centering of the light. That took me back when I 


moved-- When I was married to Virginia, we moved to New 
Mexico, where it was possible for me to go to wonderful 
dumps in New Mexico, just outstanding dumps. No one in New 
Mexico, in Taos, was particularly interested in assemblage 
so I had the whole thing to myself, practically, until two 
or three other artists that I met, who came to see me, I 
found out they were also doing assemblages. So we used to 
spend-- We'd have more fun going to a dump than we would 
any other social function in Taos. Enjoyed the dump, 
enjoyed each other, have our picnics and really have a 
great day, 

SMITH: What dumps were you going to? 

WAGNER: Well, one was in Hondo; it was a wonderful one up 
on the top of a mountain. You drove up around and there it 
was on the crest of the hill. Marvelous dump. Things 
there that had gone back, oh, I imagine 150 years, laying 
around in that dump. The other dump was an especially 
exciting dump because it was long. You forded a river, and 
then you drove up this long road winding through all of the 
debris, from refrigerators to old cars to pieces of this 
and fragments of that, dead animals and bones, objects and 
junk. Then you curved around and the final destination was 
the Penitente Cemetery of Valdez Valley. So it would be 
nothing while you were in the dump to have to stand at 
attention and bow for a funeral that was going by through 


the dump to arrive up at the top of the cemetery. 
Actually, the cemetery, all around the cemetery, was also a 
dump. So you could-- They had a fence there to keep the 
goats out from chewing up the paper flowers from the 
crosses and other things, but basically the dump surrounded 
the cemetery even on the top. This dump was hundreds of 
years of civilization. Things there that were 
magnificent! So therefore, when I found these dumps and I 
found these things, it was — 
SMITH: Like what? 

WAGNER: I started working into this form because I was 
interested in the centering, in the spiritual, the Buddha, 
the Taoist, the mystics, the meditation, the American 
Indian, the quaternity of the four directions. All these 
things were laid out for me right there. 
SMITH: Were these Hispano dumps? or Anglo? or Indian? 
WAGNER: No, all Hispano. Yeah, both of them. No Indian 
dumps there, no. What was so nice about that form was that 
they were contemplative. They were not really narrative, 
they were more fetishlike, power pieces, you know. And 
they would combine painting, geometric painting and 
whatnot, in relation to the objects themselves, which were 
all sorts of American Indian and Spanish imagery. 
SMITH: Do Mexico and Fetish come from that period? The 
two boxes, the large boxes that you had in your show? 


WAGNER: Yeah, they both come from that period. The Fetish 

comes a little later, but the Hexico comes from that period 


SMITH: And is that stuff that you found in Mexico or New 


WAGNER: There I found in Mexico. 

SMITH: Okay. 

WAGNER: But it all — That was about '64. 

SMITH: 'Sixty-eight is Mexico. 

WAGNER: No, I mean when I found the stuff. 

SMITH: Oh. The Devil Exorcisor is from that period, 


WAGNER: Yeah, it is, but it's a whole different concept. 

It's an enclosed box all the way around with mirrors, 

sending the devil to infinity. It's different. 

SMITH: And then you have the box with the adobe house with 

the train-- I can't remember the title of it--that you had 

in the show at Barnsdall [Junior Art Center] 

WAGNER: The ship, you mean? 

SMITH: Yeah, the ship, right. 

WAGNER: The Phantom Ship, the adobe house with the room in 

the back with the picture of Lily Langtree, and then the 

Indian fireplace, and the adobe floor, and the crucifix on 

the wall, and a chair or two. Like a New Mexico house, 

adobe. The whole house is that; had bullfight posters on 


one corner, theater announcements on another corner. Then 

you look through the door of the adobe house at one point, 

and you look in, and there's a lake with all mountains and 

trees completely around it. If you look for a moment, this 

ship will appear, a double-ended ship, and it comes out, 

and it goes back and disappears right in front of your 

eyes. It's a pretty magic piece. It's called The Phantom 

Ship, is the actual name of the box. 

SMITH: What size are the boxes that you were doing 

initially? What kind of scale were you working on? 

WAGNER: At that time? 

SMITH: Yeah, at that time. 

WAGNER: In New Mexico? 

SMITH: Yeah, in New Mexico. 

WAGNER: Small, small boxes. Maybe the largest one would 

be sixteen by twelve [inches] or something. 

SMITH: But The Phantom Ship is larger than that. 

WAGNER: Yeah, but that is not a box. The Phantom Ship. 

That is actually a construction, a house. That's a 

different-- Like the Devil Exorcisor and The Phantom Ship 

are constructions. Like Firaskew's a construction, it is 

not a box . 

SMITH: Okay. So you were also beginning to do 

constructions at that time, simultaneously? 

WAGNER: Yeah. Yeah, at that time. The Phantom Ship was 


one, and I have another one that you've probably never 

seen. It's called the Zodiac Box. It moves one revolution 

an hour and goes through the whole twelve signs of the 

zodiac. It's in a construction similar to the Devil 

Exorcisor. You're looking in and seeing a change all the 

time, with the planets and the signs. 

SMITH: Were a lot of your boxes and constructions at this 

time mechanized, motorized? 

WAGNER: Not that many, but a few, yeah. 

SMITH: That's something that you've stopped doing, it 

seems . 

WAGNER: I'm working on one in San Pedro called The Castle 

of the Graf van Rommelgem. I hope to have that finished 

someday. That's Flemish. Graf means count, right?, [and] 

ronimel is junk, and gem is the place. And that's what they 

called me in Belgium. The Graf van Rommelgem, Count of the 

Junk Place. 

SMITH: Well, at the same time you were-- It seems I've 

read about very large-scale environmental things that you 

were doing that were used in theatrical performances. They 

sound like your constructions, but on a very, very large 

scale. What were some of those that you did? The dance 


WAGNER : I ' ve done two . 

SMITH: Or the piece with dancers. 


WAGNER: I've done two: one was in Eugene, Oregon, at the 
Open Gallery, and the other one was in San Francisco, at 
the Vorpal Gallery, upstairs on the top floor of that 
gallery. It needs lots of space, because we actually 
constructed the box about eleven by eleven by eleven. 
SMITH: Feet, right? 

WAGNER: Yes. With mirrors and Pepper's ghost-glass. 
Pepper's ghost is something that was used in the time of 
the early theater. Samuel Pepper, he invented this great 
glass that could be tipped at a certain angle, and the 
audience would see phantoms. I had them; fixed phantoms 
and mirrors on the other side. I had dancers, mime — two 
mimes , and two dancers , and two poets . And dream 
readers: four women reading their dreams and dressed up in 
their dreams simultaneously, bumping into each other like 
the other one never existed. An audience on each side, 
about 150 people on each side, so each side absolutely saw 
something different from the other side as far as the box 
was concerned. They changed sides at the intermission, 
everybody shifted, then they saw a different expression of 
the same piece. The reason I had the two poets, two 
dancers- -because they switched. These read to this 
audience, and these read to this, then they moved through 
and they'd read the same thing over here, and back and 
forth. And these mimes would work on both sides and go 


right through the box. 

SMITH: Couldn't the audience hear what was happening on 

both sides of the box? I mean, they could hear both poets 

reading, couldn't they? 

WAGNER: Not really. No, they couldn't. And if they did, 

it made no difference, because we had four dream readers 

simultaneously reading. The box was deep enough so the 

poet could do what he wanted over here, and this poet could 

do what he wanted. There was no interference. 

SMITH: Was the performance aspect of it, was that your 


WAGNER: Yeah. The whole thing was my conception and 

choreographed . 

SMITH: Did Virginia [Copeland Wagner] do the 


WAGNER: No, I did the choreography. Virginia did tai chi 

sword in the piece. One side tai chi, one side tai chi 

sword . 

SMITH: Who were the poets? 

WAGNER: The one up in Oregon, I don't think we had a title 

for that piece. But the one in San Francisco, we called it 

Living in Infinity. It was a little different concept, 

different box, but it was basically the same. We had 

wonderful musicians in Oregon that made all their own 

instruments out of auto parts and junk and scraped things 


on the floor. They sat in four corners of the gallery, and 
we got all this wonderful music. When I got to San 
Francisco, we had all these dancers from San Francisco, and 
all the poets from San Francisco and from Berkeley. We had 
good talent to draw from; we had the best. We had a 
surrealist poet and a realist poet. 
SMITH: Who were they? 

WAGNER: One was Latif Harris and the other was Taddeo 
Young. They're both Bay Area poets. And dancers like 
Theodore Roszak's daughter, and people like that. And 
Manuel Nieto, he gave a whole performance. He was at 
Berkeley, Spanish, with his company. 

SMITH: So you had different groups? The performers would 
change, then? 

WAGNER: Yeah, it lasted for six weeks, each one, Saturday 
and Sunday nights. We always had a full house; never, 
never stopped coming, these people. Then I did it again 
with a different scene in Monterey; I had nothing. I did 
the same thing at Angel's Gate [Cultural Center], nothing. 
SMITH: What do you mean nothing? 

WAGNER: Nothing, nothing at all; just the actors and the 
performers, but nothing there. Just tape on the floor. I 
made a maze of tape that they could not cross the maze 
lines, and that was called, in Monterey at the Pacific 
Grove Art Center, it was called Loof Lirpa, which is April 


Fool backwards. And at Angel's Gate, it was called The 
Maze of Invisible Walls. The mimes would grope along the 
walls trying to get out. Because I told the audience in 
the beginning, I said, "I was down in the bottom of the 
North Sea, and I was trapped, encased, within glass walls, 
and there was only one way out, and I could not find that. 
As I looked up, there were four depressed girls from 
Finland sitting on the corners of the mirrors throwing Pet 
Milk cans at each other while camels were walking on top of 
the water." I gave that image, from then on they would- - 
That was their confined area. They weren't all confined. 
There were some-- Like the world champion skateboard artist 
could do whatever he wanted to do. He was everywhere in 
San Pedro. Oh, it was a wonderful performance there. 
People were throwing their dreams in the air and flying 
through the air. It was like a Chagall, those dream 
readers. Each time I've done it, it seems to get better, 
you know. I haven't done it now for five years. 
SMITH: You showed me a photograph of a piece that you had 
at your house in Echo Park, the piece with the chains, the 
piece that appeared and disappeared. 

WAGNER: Yeah, that was twenty by twenty feet, and it had 
twelve elements of burned assemblage, of charred wood from 
Topanga Canyon, out of fires, from fences and- -not trees, 
but pieces of wood with all the charcoal on them, hanging 


on conveyor chains, like a cross form. So as it turned, 
these pieces from all of the sides would enter into the 
center. And there was a dancer, a nude dancer, black and 
white painted, and the pieces were black and white. So 
when they moved in, she would dance through these pieces 
until they would just almost close around her. In the 
meantime, Don Preston, who was with the Mothers of 
Invention, had a group called AHA, the Aesthetic Harmony 
Assemblage. All his instruments were all built out of 
porch swings, and springs, and chimes, and bumpers, and 
gongs, and junk. His sounds were fantastic. He had a 
piano with thumbtacks, and everything was about-- He was 
studying then with Harry Partch; he wasn't quite up to 
forty- three tones, but he was very close. He wasn't too 
far away from Harry Partch. It's hard to do that on a 
piano with only, what is it, twelve tones? But he really 
reached out. He would feel the shapes and the dancer, and 
the dancer felt the music and saw the shapes, and the whole 
thing became an integrated piece of art. It was a 
beautiful concept. 

SMITH: This, the performance-art aspect, and the 
constructions and the boxes seemed to come simultaneously 
with the hippie movement. Is there a connection, or is 
that coincidence? 
WAGNER: Well, at the time of the hippie movement, there 


were a lot of people who wanted to do things. It wasn't 
that corporate attitude. They wanted to do things pure, 
not something for money, professionally cooked up. They 
did it for love. They did it for the pureness of art. 
That was a nice philosophy, and the young people-- There 
were lots of wonderful people within that movement that I 
could use as part of the actors and poets. Not all of them 
were hippies; some of them had already grown through it or 
were about to become. I had some younger than hippies 
even, a couple of them. But it was that era. 
SMITH: And you were based here in Los Angeles and in New 

WAGNER: That's just one piece. Wait, now. When I got to 
doing these things in Oregon and in San Francisco, that was 
'77; the hippie movement was over. But there was a 
transition period going on where people had been there and 
wanted to continue, you see, wanted to do something. The 
only people that were hard to deal with in these 
performances, always, were the dancers, because they have 
some narcissistic thing going within them that builds up 
their egos to the point where they're very difficult to 
work with. Because they're very temperamental, where the 
poets are old tennis-shoe type people, you know, right off 
the street. A whole different philosophy. But the 
dancers, they want everything just the way they want it. 


If the floor had one spot on it, they would complain; if 
the window was open, they would complain--if you closed the 
window, they would complain; if the lights weren't right, 
they would complain, it would show up one of their eyebrows 
too blue, or something. None of the other people-- 
Everybody else wanted it and loved it. But they were 
always the prima donnas, you see. I find that's kind of 
the way dancers' personalities work anyway. 
SMITH: Were you in Haight-Ashbury during the '67, '68 

WAGNER: No. No. I walked through it, and I still, when I 
go to San Francisco, I still go over there. There are some 
wonderful coffeehouses over there. I can't remember the 
name; was it the Beethoven? Was that the name of it? The 
Beethoven, I think, was a good one, where they used to play 
classical music. 

SMITH: The Beethoven is in North Beach. 
WAGNER: Maybe it moved. But in the old days it was 
there. There was another one there that was like an open 
garden inside and had a piano, and whatnot. That was 
another good one. My favorite coffeehouse in San Francisco 
wasn't even in Haight-Ashbury, it was the Meat Market on 
Noe and Twenty- fourth [Street] next to Bud's ice cream 
parlor. That was a true beat coffeehouse, with the old 
furniture. I liked that one. 


SMITH: Yeah. In terms of the kinds of things you were 
doing at this period, were you getting much-- Was the [Los 
Angeles] Times reporting on what you were doing? Were they 
giving you reviews of the boxes, the assemblages? 
WAGNER: Well, there was only one actual reviewer on the 
Times that reviewed everything I did during that period; 
that was William Wilson. He was never very favorable to me 
in his most of his reviews. He always said, "Puns are 
cute, kitsch, yuk, yuk, " if it was a pun, or "He's 
continuing with that tap dance of death." Or one he uses a 
lot with other people, I've noticed, some word I can't 
remember. But it's the same. He doesn't change his 
wording, he just keeps writing the same things for 
everybody's reviews; it's almost identical, what he said 
about my work in 1978-- He's still — or '77 — he's still 
talking about-- No, earlier than that--I'm mixed up; '69, 
'70 was about the last time he reviewed anything of mine. 
Tintintabulate, that's the word he always used. "They're 
tintintabulating. " And I've noticed he's still using these 
words. No, I got reviews from others. I got good reviews 
from Art International and from Art Week and from Artforum 
and Art News, those magazines. But very little with the 
Times, very little on that score, you know? 
WAGNER: What about the L.A. [Los Angeles] Free Press? 
SMITH: They gave me always some things going there. Alex 


Apostolides was sort of the art editor and in charge of 
things, and he gave me a whole front page once in the Free 
Press. And also in Open City, which was another magazine, 
or newspaper, in Los Angeles during that period. 
SMITH: Did you know the people at the Free Press? 
WAGNER: I knew lots of people at the Free Press over a 
period of time; photographers and writers, like Liza 
Williams, who I really enjoyed. They all lived in Echo 
Park, practically. Art Kunkin and Susan Smoka . And the 
photographer that photographed most of my things was a 
wonderful photographer and lived in Echo Park. I'm trying 
to remember her name. Sharon Ackerman. All of these 
people were great. The Free Press wasn't anything like it 
is today, it was really a fine paper. Jeanie Morgan, who 
was married then, I think, to Art Kunkin. There was a 
different love feeling to the paper, you know? Although it 
honestly stated about social comment. It covered 
everything . 

SMITH: Well, did you feel it was a paper you could go talk 
to the art editor whenever you wanted to? 
WAGNER: I'll be actually honest with you. I've never 
talked to any art editor in my life on any basis of trying 
to achieve any information or have a review given. I've 
never done that, never asked the newspaper to review my 
exhibitions to this day, ever. I have no intention of ever 


doing it. If they want to do it, they will come. That's 
up to the people who give the exhibition. If they have 
enough interest to give me the exhibition, I think it's up 
to them to do something about the rest. Because after all, 
they are charging a commission for the work, and I think 
it's part of their duty. It's not up to the artist to go 
around blowing his horn to get a crit. 

SMITH: Did you do any pieces that were related to the 
Vietnam War? 

WAGNER: Yeah, a couple. I did a rocket in a glass 
cylinder with some metal pieces I found in a dump in 
Rocketdyne that looked like rocket pieces. Up to a 
point. And I had a whole army of soldiers inside, all 
trapped and encased in this penis of glass. Yeah, that was 

I did one on peace in Navaho, Yiddish, Spanish, 
French, English, and German within hands clasped together, 
trying to pull together from all of the different races of 
people, the red, the yellow, the black, the brown and the 

SMITH: Was this a box or a construction? 
WAGNER: This was a box. There were a few. 
SMITH: Then you were involved in some things concerning 
the American Indians. 
WAGNER: The America Needs Indians. 


SMITH: How did you get involved in that? Where did that 
come from? 

WAGNER: Well, there were a lot of people that I knew, like 
Steve Durke and Dion Wright, Walter Chappell in North 
Beach. That's where it really got going. North Beach. 
Actually, the name of the group was the Love Generator and 
America Needs Indians. This was to do something to help 
the American Indians, who were being absolutely torn apart 
by the white man at that time. When the hippie movement 
came along, well, everybody wanted to be an Indian, so 
naturally it brought the Indian into fame. Of course, the 
hippies went to the Hopis. The hippies at the Hopi 
[reservation were] running around nude, and the Hopis, 
being very conservative people, never heard of such 
things. They didn't have as much love for the hippies as 
the hippies had for the Hopis. The Navahos didn't have 
much to do with the whole thing. They went to the Plains; 
they went to Rolling Thunder, up in Nevada or wherever he 
is, on the border there. Rolling Thunder and a few Hopis — 


FEBRUARY 14, 1987 

SMITH: Ok, you were were saying Rolling Thunder-- 

WAGNER: Yeah, and a few Hopis, like David Monongi , Jack 

the Snake Priest, and Tom [Thomas] Banyakia, and some of 

those people, they took a liking to the hippies. They saw 

that the hippies were nice kids with money. It was either 

going into the Hopis or going into some yogi group. They 

were cashing in like mad. All of them coming over here 

from India making fortunes off of the hippies. Well, 

David, Thomas, and Jack, and a few of these boys, they were 

the conservative party of the Hopi, but they were the most 

progressive of the two clans. They knew when they had a 

good thing going. So they'd go off to these love-ins, and 

the Hopis would be the center of attention. They weren't 

using Plains Indians, the Hopis came to love-ins. And 

Rolling Thunder. I guess he was, I don't know, up in-- 

SMITH: Lake Pyramid? 

WAGNER: Up in Nevada. What is that, Comanche or one of 

those- - 

SMITH: Shoshone or Washoe. 

WAGNER: One of those things, Washoe Valley, around there. 

[coughs; tape recorder off] 

SMITH: So you were talking about, before we took a break, 

about the Love Generator. 


WAGNER: Well, we were talking about a particular part 
there. At that time, I think we were mentioning David 
Monongi and that group of Indians who were connected up 
with the--knew all of these people we're talking about: 
Steve Durke, who had the Lama Foundation in Lama, New 
Mexico; and Dion Wright, who was the head of the 
Brotherhood of Man in Laguna Beach and the Mystic Arts 
World with [Timothy] Leary; and Walter Chappell, who was a 
filmmaker, and a good one, who lived in Pilar, New Mexico. 
And then there was Henry [Harry] Hay and John-- John, what 
was his last name? 
SMITH: Burnside, you mean. 

WAGNER: John Burnside. They were all involved in TILL 
[Committee for Traditional Indian Land and Life] , which was 
another organization, the Traditional Indian Land and Life 
committee, who were trying to help the Hopis and other 
Indians, especially around New Mexico and Arizona. An 
omnibus bill was trying to be passed that would remove the 
land from the Indians and slowly take away their 
reservation. They went to Washington, D.C., and they 
battled this thing out in Washington. They saved that from 
being passed. Henry Hay and Craig Carpenter, who was 
basically with Rolling Thunder up north, the two of them 
were working together. But Henry Hay lived in San Juan 
pueblo, and John, and they were trying-- The last I saw of 


them, they were trying-- The state of Texas was trying to 
claim all of the Rio Grande, right on up through New 
Mexico, all the water rights. Henry Hay was out trying to 
put across to the Pueblos that live all along the Rio 
Grande that they've got to do something about using that 
water in some way, such as for growing rabbit brush and 
things like this for their animals, so that they have to 
rely on that water, a reason for using it. But the Indians 
weren't using that river at all. It could have been taken 
away from New Mexico, the whole water rights of the Rio 
Grande. I think he fought that; that never came about. 
TILL was an organization. Love Generator, America 
Needs Indians; all of this came together as a group to sort 
of make the Indian a hero in America, rather than a bum, 
like he'd been treated for years, as a ward of the 
government . 

SMITH: Were you attending the meetings? 
WAGNER: Yeah, I used to go to the meetings. 
SMITH: On a regular basis? 

WAGNER: Yeah, just about every month. We published a 
magazine even, a little book that was written, the Prophecy 
of the Hopi by Chief-- What was his name? Dan Bear, you 
know. Chief [Dan] K'achongva. We put that book all 
together, Detta Lange and Hannes Lange, Charles Port from 
Immaculate Heart College. We had the meetings at 


Immaculate Heart College on Franklin [Avenue] and Western 
[Avenue] in their auditorium. Lots of Indians would come, 
and they would dance, and they would do all these things, 
and they would bring all their culture to L.A. through 
that. So it was a big thing. Everybody was buying Indian 
jewelry, and everybody had to be an Indian. My aspect of 
the thing was I just loved the Indians' being there, but I 
wasn't romanticizing Indians through their trappings and 
things. I was romanticizing Indians through my boxes and 
constructions and earlier paintings, perhaps. I was a 
natural for being in that group. 

SMITH: Well, it doesn't sound too typical of you to be 
going to political organizations' meetings. 
WAGNER: Well, this was beyond the call of duty, 
[laughter] I went there because I loved the Indians, and I 
didn't want to see them-- The Bureau of Indian Affairs, 
they were a bunch of puppets, and they were really against 
the Indians. They were Indians who were against the 
Indians. I thought it was-- I never really became involved 
that much in any politics. But it wasn't really politics 
to me, it was sort of restoring a culture and being part of 
keeping this restoration from being destroyed. Instead of 
tearing down a Victorian house and putting up a condo, that 
same kind of flavor to the American Indian: it was a thing 
of elegance, a thing of beauty, a thing of love, a thing 


that we cherished from nature. And to have it destroyed 
for coal and oil and junk, and taking away the land to put 
up the poverty-stricken shacks to make the place look like 
some tenement instead of an Indian community, I wasn't 
ready to accept that kind of metamorphosis. 
SMITH: How was your artwork-- Were you doing what they 
call agitprop type of artwork connected with this? Were 
you doing anything through your art to help the Traditional 
Indian Land and Life committee or the other organizations? 
WAGNER: Yeah, I made a few drawings for their magazines 
and bulletins, and things of that nature, related to 
protest. Hands reaching up through the mud, prayer hands 
with the light above, trying to grope for the last light. 
Smoke and smog and corruption, and debris in the desert, 
and debris in the mountains that is being just dumped out 
there in nature. A different kind of debris than good old 
junk. And shooting up everything that they saw; white man 
goes to the dump to shoot everything and fill it with 
holes; not to collect it for a beautiful, insignificant 
object, a thing of beauty, but to puncture it full of holes 
with his rifle. That's all the desert is for as far as 
white man is concerned, I did make one piece related to 
that with an Indian holding up a whole mountain of debris 
that's just destroying the landscape, and wrecked cars. 
It's called America Needs Indians, or the other title is I 


Think We Ought to Stop This Sort of Thing. 

SMITH: That would explain why-- That piece seems unusual 
in the kind of materials you used, those kinds of cheap, 
plastic, like Lego kind of toys, but they're not-- 
WAGNER: That was actually that way when I found it in the 
dump. Everything had been melted together, and it became a 
wonderful piece of metamorphosis. Every kind of object in 
there just fused together. I had no control over what the 
dump did to that piece. I used that piece as a statement 
protesting the pollution of our deserts and our mountains 
and our environment with the American Indian as the last 
symbol of let's not do any more, let's stop. 
SMITH: Is that a time-full piece or a timeless piece? 
WAGNER: Well, I think it would be time- full, but so far 
it's on time. As long as we have this continuing 
environmental pollution, and the way it's going now, it'll 
still be timeless. 

SMITH: Harry Hay in his oral history interview mentions 
that the Traditional Land and Life committee was primarily 
Anglos, white people. 

WAGNER: That's correct, except for a few Hopis that I 
mentioned, like David. They had to have some Indians. 
SMITH: Yeah. Was America Needs Indians primarily white 
people as well, Anglos? 
WAGNER: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, I would say that 


most of them were artists. 

SMITH: Did you go on any protests, like to Washington or 
the Federal Building, or anything like that? 
WAGNER: No. I heard a story — I don't know how true it is, 
but I got it from a firsthand report from David, that they 
went to Washington about the omnibus bill, and they were 
talking to some senator about it. The senator was denying 
them everything, and David said, "Well, if you pass, if you 
even think about passing this bill, your eyes are going to 
be filled with spider's poison." And he [the senator] 
says, "See what I mean? We have to confront these kind of 
idiots, these kind of superstitious creatures who are 
telling us--" And at that time the man grabbed his eyes, 
"Oooh!" He couldn't see a thing. 

SMITH: You don't know who they were talking to. It was a 

WAGNER: I don't know which one. No, this was a story I 
heard from David. But I also hear from David stories about 
how they go to a certain place in Arizona once a year to 
watch the flying saucers land. [laughter] Then they all 
go, the whole group, to a special place to visit the flying 
saucers, and they get their prophecies there. Because they 
say that the Gourd of Ash will fall, and we must pray every 
day to stop the Gourd of Ash from falling on the earth. 
SMITH: About this time you were also involved with Yogi 


Bhajan? How did you meet-- You met him in New Mexico? 
WAGNER: No, I met him right here in Los Angeles at the 
East-West Cultural Center. One evening I was going to a 
lecture by a Sufi master, and I immediately took a dislike 
to him. My wife talked to him, Virginia, he said, "I can 
teach you to raise your kundalini in five days." Virginia 
became fascinated by that, and she went down to his classes 
at the East-West. Everybody was on the floor (there were 
only four people there in his first class ) . Edith Tyberg 
was the director there, a great lady. About two weeks 
later Yogi Bhajan told Virginia, "Your husband couldn't 
come to my class for all the money in the world." And I 
sent a note back to him through Virginia saying, "I 
wouldn't come to your class for all the money in the 
world." This went on and on until finally we were--I was 
talked into attending. We got to be friends, you know. He 
treated me all right. As a matter of fact, at that moment 
when I came, about two weeks later, everybody came, whole 
busloads of hippies from the Hog Farm in New Mexico. There 
was John Law, the actor, and Tom Law, his brother, and 
Reno. A lot of actresses that were in the Smothers 
Brothers Show. Goldie. All these kind of people showed 

SMITH: Goldie Hawn? 
WAGNER: No. What was her name? They called her Goldie. 


She was one of the hippie girls on the Smothers Brothers. 
The Smothers Brothers even showed up in their Rolls 
Royce. What was his name. Tommy Smothers? 
SMITH: Tom Smothers and Dick Smothers. 
WAGNER: Anyway, they came, and we got people like 
Barrymore, Jr. , John Barrymore, Jr. , who was an old 
dopehead. We got Jim Baker, who ran that restaurant on 
Sunset Boulevard. Jim Baker was an ex-Marine jujitsu 
champion of the world. He ran a health food restaurant on 
Sunset Boulevard. We had all of these people. Jules 
Boucharie turned over an ashram to him behind his antique 
shop on Robertson [Boulevard] and-- What's the one? I 
can ' t remember the street . 
SMITH: Melrose [Avenue]? 

WAGNER: Melrose and Robertson, yeah, near Cyrano's down a 
block or two. All of these things started going on. 
Johnny Rivers, he came along, bought him a new Cadillac, a 
pink Cadillac. He lived in Jules Boucharie ' s house, and he 
ran his whole thing. I made him a big gong stand, and I 
did a lot of-- I made him mandalas. I worked pretty hard 
for him for about seven or eight months. I was going every 
night to study with him. 
SMITH: Kundalini yoga? 

WAGNER: Yeah. And then finally he — We used to take him — 
We got him classes all over the place. Everyplace, we'd 


take him. He loved Mexican food. He was an airport 
inspector in New Delhi. But he loved Mexican food. He was 
so arrogant to people, the most arrogant man I have ever 
known in my life. But he was always nice to me. He told 
me once, he said, [with accent] "I think you're a more holy 
man than I am, Gordon." Anyway, we used to have great 
parties, lots of food, feasts with all these people. The 
Hog Farm did great things to help, you know, to bring the 
spirit. A whole community from New Mexico. Truches is 
where they came from. 
SMITH: Truches? 

WAGNER: Truches. That's where they were, back in the 
mountain, Sangre de Cristo. Then they had another group in 
Embudo, wonderful girls there. They were all beautiful, 
hippies. And they just loved it, they ate it up, you 
see. They'd been into the Indian thing before, I mean 
American Indian. They just switched over to Yogi Bhajan 
like that. Yogi was strong, powerful. He'd put you 
through grueling, horrible tests of strength every night. 
SMITH: Like what? 

WAGNER: Yoga exercises that you just couldn't imagine. 
Standing on one hand, balanced on two feet, the other arm 
up in the air and fire breathing for fifty breaths, and 
then switch over to the other one on this hand. And up and 
this way out, just like this. 


SMITH: Your feet would be lifted in the air? 
WAGNER: No, they'd be on the floor. You ran one arm up 
and this one like this, and fire breathe, [repeats very 
quick breaths] real fast to raise your kundalini. Well, 
this went on and on. Finally, Virginia went on to tai 
chi. I was not that interested-- He even had me teaching a 
class, when he was in New Mexico, at Pitzer College. I had 
to teach the class. And it was-- We just went to New York 
one day, and we never-- He wanted to make me the treasurer 
of the group, 3H0 it was called. Healthy, Happy, Holy. 
John Law was the president, and I was going to be the 
treasurer, I can't remember his name, but he was the editor 
and owner of the [San Francisco] Oracle magazine. 
SMITH: In San Francisco? 

WAGNER: Both, here L.A. [Los Angeles] Oracle, and San 
Francisco. I can't remember his name now, but he was going 
to be the secretary. None of us were ever going to do 
anything; it was just a name so we could have a nonprofit 
organization. Yogi was-- He told me he was going to get 
the benefit of everything. He had all these women around 
him all the time. But we left. 
SMITH: Why did you leave? 

WAGNER: It was too much. And he really hurt Virginia's 
back. Pulled her down on his stomach and pressed into her 
spine. Tried to damage her. And he said, "It doesn't 


matter where you go. I don't understand how you escape 

from my net, but just remember the elephant has a very long 

trunk, and no matter where you are, we'll snatch you back," 

over the telephone. Well, then he moved to New Mexico, up 

to Espanola. He's been out there, I guess, all the time. 

He raises some kind of special horses, and there's a whole 

bunch of them there, with guns and rifles to protect 

themselves against the Spanish. An interesting concept. 

But he never bothered me. 

SMITH: What's the interesting concept? 

WAGNER: Well, the whole, this ranch and this idea of his. 

He never bothered me. He bothered so many people. He 

caused harm to so many people. We came out unscathed. 

SMITH: So you were teaching at Pitzer for a while? 

WAGNER: Yeah, I was teaching there at that time, as a 

matter of fact. 

SMITH: How did you get that job? 

WAGNER: Carl Hertel went on a sabbatical, and he asked me 

if I would take over during that time. I said only under 

one condition: that I can come and go as I please and have 

my class and never attend any meetings. So that was 

arranged . 

SMITH: Had you taught at a major university before, at an 

art department in a major university before? 

WAGNER: Not really, no. 


SMITH: Community college and community art centers. 
WAGNER: Yeah, things like that, and art centers. 
SMITH: Did you enjoy-- Did you find teaching at an art 
school was different? Was it enjoyable to you? 
WAGNER: Well, there's-- You know the people at an art 
school are interested in art and are there for that, 
whereas in a college they have a lot of other things on 
their minds, other schedules to keep and other classes to 
bring up to date on for grades and points, and all that, 
you know. Art is-- If you were going to learn about art, I 
would say that that would be the last place you would want 
to go, Pitzer College. I mean, there are so many good 
schools I think that could give you art. Of course, I had 
a very good- -I had good classes going, because I was the 
only one teaching what I was teaching in all of the 
colleges. I was teaching assemblage and three-dimensional 
construction combined with painting. And design, I had one 
class in design, and the other — So that brought in 
students from Pomona [College] and Scripps [College] and 
Claremont [McKenna College] and Harvey Mudd [College] and 
Pitzer; I had all the colleges, students from each one. I 
was amazed at the beautiful work they really did, you 
know. We had a wonderful time doing it. 

SMITH: Many artists in Southern California, and I'm sure 
everywhere, have been able to support themselves by getting 


jobs, teaching jobs, at the University of California or the 
state colleges. Long Beach State [California State 
University, Long Beach] , Fullerton [California State 
University, Fullerton] , [University of California] Santa 
Barbara. Why didn't you settle into a teaching job, a 
faculty teaching job? 

WAGNER: Because basically, that's what you become. You 
become a teacher instead of an artist. It's a trap, and 
you can get caught in it. I know a lot of artists who 
teach art, but they're always complaining that they have no 
time for their artwork because they're so involved in their 
schedules to teach. They may teach three days a week or 
something, but in the meantime they're preparing for the 
next four days for those three days, you know. I think it 
actually takes a lot out of any serious artist who wants to 
be an artist to have to take time out to teach. Plus the 
fact that, not being a person of organizations like that, 
meetings, and being told this and to do that and get this 
done, and orders and regulations to follow, all those kind 
of disciplines, I'd rather just follow my own disciplines 
and work in my studio and get along the best I can and 
teach in a place where you have students, but if you don't 
have the students, you don't have the class sort of 
feeling, like art centers and whatnot. Money-- If you want 
to be an artist, I think you have to be one. I know there 


are some good artists that are teachers. They wait for 
their sabbatical when they can do their work. But I know 
so many of them, that's all they do is teach; they never 
have exhibitions, they never work, and they never get 
anything done, you know. And when they do something, it's 
eclectic to everybody else because they can't follow their 
way long enough. Too exhausting. 

SMITH: How were you supporting yourself in the late 
sixties, early seventies? 

WAGNER: That's barely making it in the late sixties. 
Fortunately, Virginia has a wonderful ability to teach the 
Alexander technique. She had private students, she would 
have maybe four or five a week- -no, four or five a day, 
sometimes, maybe three times a week. That paid the bills. 
And I would sell something sometimes. I taught a little 
bit, or I'd be asked to give a lecture. Some kind of thing 
always came along; I never worried about it. But if I 
think back about it, it was a good cushion with Virginia, 
because she financed things pretty well for us, kept it 
there. But back in those days, there was a boom in the 
arts, you know. I was selling a lot of works. I was 
selling boxes for $2,000, $3,000 per box. Somebody would 
come along and give me $6,000 for a couple of boxes. 
SMITH: [Silvan] Simone was handling your boxes or [Robert] 


WAGNER: No, none-- That was In the late seventies--no, I 
mean the early seventies. No. 
SMITH: Who was handling your boxes? 

WAGNER: At that time it was Molly Barnes and Jacqueline 
Anhalt [Gallery] on La Cienega [Boulevard] . They sold a 
few for me. Then I was invited to a lot of exhibitions. I 
showed some works in the Orlando Gallery, they sold some 
works for me, in the [San Fernando] Valley. I used to get 
by, but I was never rich. I enjoyed comfortable poverty, 
and we lived in Echo Park. Finally, they raised our rent 
to $200 a month for this big house on two and a half acres 
of land. It started at $80, and it went up slowly over a 
period of nineteen years, it progressed up to $200, That 
was in '78, I think, when they kicked us out. That's when 
we moved . They sold the house . 
SMITH: When did you go to Europe? 
WAGNER: Nineteen seventy-one. 
SMITH: How did that come about? 

WAGNER: I was talking with Arthur Secunda, and he'd had an 
exhibition in a gallery in Uppsala, Konstsalongen 
Kavalletin, of assemblages. He had 104 works in the 
exhibition, and he sold 108, of assemblage. So he said, 
"You should have a show there. I'll write to Herbert and 
see what we can do." He wrote a letter, and Herbert 
answered me. 


SMITH: Herbert who? 

WAGNER: The director, Herbert Ahlquist. 

SMITH: Ahlquist? 

WAGNER: He was the owner. He wrote a letter back and 

said, "You can have an exhibition in October of the next 

year . " 

And I said, "October, that's pretty good." 
Arthur said, "That's perfect. It's not too dark, and 
it's not too light. It's just right. You'll like it that 
time of the year . " 

I wrote him back and said I'd do it. So I did it. I 
sent forty-two boxes there, boxes that were--they weren't 
fabricated boxes, they were still assemblage and some 
fetish pieces and images, and of that mandalic form. 
SMITH: Things like Mexican Bus? 

WAGNER: Similar to that period. Forty- two of them in a 
crate, flew them over there to Stockholm. We took off, and 
we went ourselves. We arrived there I think it was about 
September 30, and the show was going to open on October 
2. We got there and everything was fine, and I hung the 
whole exhibition. They had the opening, posters all over 
the town and the city, and great kiosks. It was 
beautiful. A nice man. And they sold quite a few pieces 
for me out of that show. The only problem, he said they 
would have sold twenty times more, but the teachers were on 


strike and they had no money at that time. The University 

of Uppsala, which is an old university, one of the oldest 

in the world, I think. That's how I started, that was my 

first show in Europe. 

SMITH: How long did you stay in Sweden? 

WAGNER: A couple of months. Then I was Invited to have an 

exhibition in the museum, in a place called Sttdertaije 

[Konsthall], which is in Stockholm. But that would be the 

following year, so I had no immediate plans [about] what to 

do with this work. Winter was there, and I didn't know 

where to put it, you know. The whole crate went out into 

Herbert's storage shed. I figured, well, it's going to 

freeze, you know. I don't know what happens to art when 

there's no heat, no nothing, just out in the freezing 

shed. I don't know if glass breaks or what. I had no 

conception. So we finally-- I made lots of friends in 

Sweden, some of my great friends, like Jan Thunholm, BjGrn 

Evanson, Nils Stenquist. A lot, all artists. 

SMITH: Was there assemblage work being done in Sweden at 

the time? 

WAGNER: Yeah. Yeah, there was, by Jan Thunholm, he was 

one, and Jan BjOrn, he was another one. 

SMITH: How did Swedish assemblage differ from California 


WAGNER: Well, basically, they painted it all. They bought 


wood, cut it out, sawed it, nailed it on, and stood it up 

and painted the colors. 

SMITH: So they were fabricated pieces, then, instead of 

the found pieces. 

WAGNER: Yeah. Sawed out, randomly sawed out. BjOrn 

Evanson did big gates for the city of Stockholm, like pie, 

you know, of bronzes and things; he used car parts and 

things; he would weld them into his steel. He lived on one 

of the islands right there just south of a place called-- 

My memory is so bad for these times. But a wonderful 

place. He had a studio right on the water. There's a 

community. It's right there off of the islands. The ships 

went right by his house; on the Baltic, beautiful. Anyway, 

after about two months we left. I studied there with an 

engraver and made some etchings. 

SMITH: Had you studied etching before? 

WAGNER: No, no. They invited me to do some etchings. His 

name was Eje Lttnn. He was a wonderful old guy. He taught 

me the Rembrandt technique of etching. He was marvelous. 

SMITH: How have you used the etching? 

WAGNER: Oh, I just made them there. I just made a couple 

of etchings, just for the feeling of it. 

SMITH: Like that box there that has the line-- 

WAGNER: That's a drawing. 

SMITH: Yeah, it has an etching feeling. 


WAGNER: Well, I drew that etching on the same stock, on 

the asphaltem. 

SMITH: Had you done that kind of draftsmanship before, 

previous to that? 

WAGNER: Yeah. He was such a wonderful old man with a long 

beard and a funny, old blue seaman's cap he always wore. 

He would laugh, joke. He gave me that pointed long stick 

right here with the dull point that looks like a piece of 

bamboo. He said, "You take that back to America. You work 

with that, that is part of my father's fishing pole when he 

died." I liked him a lot. 

When we left there we went to London, We were going 
to London for a week, and we stayed for almost six 
months. Then the next thing was when is the exhibition 
going to be, to be sure that it was going to be held in the 
museum, in SOdertSlje, and at what time. The complications 
of getting it somewhere after that to a new destination. 
So the only thing I could do was-- When we arrived in 
London, I said, "This looks like a place for my art." I 
was like Gully Jimson, you know, looking for big surfaces 
to paint on. But I said, "With the British wit and the 
number of art establishments and galleries and museums in 
this city, there certainly must be someplace for my 
work." Well, that took a while. It took a lot of walking 
and learning about London, which is a marvelous city when 


you know where you're going. At first we stayed in some 
hotel next to where Virginia Woolf lived, Bloomsbury 
Street. We just wanted to get into the flavor of the 
Bloomsbury crowd, Dorothy Brett, Virginia Woolf, and all 
those ladies. Then we decided that wasn't the place, so we 
moved across the town to Victoria, over next to the 
Waterloo--or next to the Victoria Station. That was near 
the Alexander Center, where Virginia wanted to go to study 
with the master, right there at Victoria Station. So we 
found an old hotel over there, and they gave us a cheap 
rate up on the top floor. We stayed there for about two or 
three weeks. In the meantime, I'm out pounding the 
pavement for the first time in my life looking to see what 
I could find in the way of a gallery in London. That 
wasn't so easy to find. I'd go to these galleries and 
they'd say, [with British accent] "It's so wonderful, it's 
charming, it's beautiful. It's a pity you're not English, 
you're American." They would turn me off on that score. 
This went on and on and on; I must have contacted twenty- 
five, thirty galleries. But I learned about London. I 
learned how to walk in London, how to get there the 
shortest way, and how to take tubes, the underground. Now 
I'm equally at home in London as I am here, you know, in 
Southern California, where I was born. Natural-- Just a 
hamlet, really, but it seems such a massive place when 


you — We moved to another place where it said "room" on 
George Street. I did drawings and things along the way of 
all these places. Looking at drawings of some of my black 
and whites, of my Under the Crown series, I was drawing all 
the time. Probably we moved to another place on George 
Street, which was about palatable for three days. An awful 
place, just gruesome when we got inside and looked at the 
rooms, the bathroom all full of water on the floor and the 
windows all sagging and broken. The housekeeper, she was a 
nice lady. I think she was Spanish. With her tattooed 
spider on her elbow. 


FEBRUARY 21, 1987 

SMITH: Well, when we left off last week, you had come to 
London in 1971 for two weeks and stayed six months. You 
had mentioned afterwards that your stay in London was the 
beginning of a major transformation in your work- -and your 
life, I guess. Could you explain what you meant by that? 
WAGNER: Well, when I arrived in London, in the railroad 
station, Liverpool Street Station especially, from crossing 
over from Holland and taking the train to Liverpool Street, 
I walked into this station, it was so incredible, the 
ironwork and the mystery of it. I'd never seen a railroad 
station like that anywhere. It went way back; all the 
curlicues and all of the imagery. I was sort of dazed at 
the city. I had no idea where I was. I knew it was 
supposed to be the largest city in the world populationwise 
at that time. Apparently people had told me what a great 
city it was, but I had no conception of it. When we picked 
up the cab and went the wrong way on the streets, well, 
then I knew I was in a different place. As I looked at the 
people all around me, I realized they were from a different 
place. They weren't like us at all, the British, all 
different people, their faces, everything about them. And 
being there as a viewer to this was quite impressive. And 
also depressing. I went through all sorts of emotions at 


first. I realized that the people in London are not rich; 
there are lots of poor people there that live on very 
little money to keep things going. But they all have that 
wonderful spark of humor down inside of them and that 
eccentricity, which keeps everything going very healthily. 
They live almost in the past; they talk about things 
that happened four hundred years ago like it happened 
yesterday. They are very much interested in the royalty, 
the kings and the queens and all of the-- Buckingham Palace 
and all of that royal pomp is almost like a fetish to these 
people. They can't give up that admiration, or that 
feeling, for these royalty, who actually, really haven't 
much power in the politics in the country, but they're 
there. The people wait for them in parades, on the 
streets, for the queen to appear in a carriage. If she 
waves at them, then it's going to bring them good luck for 
the whole year. There's so much of that. So looking 
around London, visiting galleries and trying to get myself 
going-- Taking my works from Sweden to London, somehow I 
thought the people of London would really appreciate what I 
was doing because they have that humor, and they have that 
childlike ability to really accept it. They're sweet 
people, and I thought that it was a possibility for 
galleries to be interested. As I think we already 
mentioned, I went from one gallery to another. 


SMITH: What were you showing to these galleries? What 
were you taking to show them, what did you propose to-- 
WAGNER: I wasn't taking anything but slides. My work was 
all-- The physical work was still in Sweden. 
SMITH: Right, but what works were you-- 

WAGNER: Boxes. Boxes. That was it. Of the period that I 
had in Sweden, my older pieces. 
SMITH: So they were funk boxes? 

WAGNER: Yeah, funk boxes. As I say, they loved it, but it 
was too bad that I was an American. "You're not British," 
they would tell me. I stayed on and looked at things and 
started making a series of drawings that I call Under The 
Crown, because I realized all of this royalty, all of this 
elegance, and all of these heraldic symbols and chance were 
all wonderful images and symbols for my work to come. It 
was like empires balanced on a dice cube, or a whole empire 
balanced on a knife edge with the king and the queen in 
folly. There was always this chance that it was going to 
fall down, like a playing card castle. Playing cards. All 
these things became symbols. Dice cubes. All this 
imagery. It was all like symbols of chance, the 
aleatory. And I used those in drawings. I started drawing 
all of these things out in my rooms where we would spend 
time while we were--in the evening I would just sit and 
draw until I fell asleep. 


The thing that was a very amusing situation, I 
remember asking so many galleries, and everyone had the 
same answer, all liking my work, but always the same 
answer, "Oh, you're not British." I finally was sent to 
the British Arts Council to meet with Peter Byrd, who was 
the head of the British Arts Council, to get some 
recommendations of what he thought might happen. The way I 
found him out was there was a Swedish artist by the name of 
Brigit SkjOberg on Carlyle Street, who was a printmaker 
from Sweden and she married Peter Byrd . She ' d recommended 
me to see him, her husband. He told me that the only place 
I should really go is the American embassy and meet up with 
a gentleman there who is the head of the cultural affairs 
by the name of Bernard Lang. So he said, "You might just 
as well go to the people that represent your country, they 
can help you." So I went to Grosvenor Square, to the 
embassy. I called him first, made an appointment and went 
there. Meeting with Bernard was an odd thing. Bernard was 
an Englishman. He'd been to America once, to a space 
exhibition in Florida, and that was about as far into the 
United States as he'd ever ventured. He lived in Hampton 
Court and knew everybody in the world, I think. He'd 
organized exhibitions for Ed [Edward] Kienholz and Barnett 
Newman and Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, and many of the 
artists from New York, in the American embassy. They had-- 


the whole downstairs, when you walked in, of the American 
embassy was a gallery with great paintings and small 
paintings. He had it sectioned off so that it could be in 
smaller galleries with a fountain in the center. That was 
what he was doing, he was showing American artists, and he 
was also working with actors, poets, anybody from the arts 
that came to London or England. It was sort of his 
responsibility to be the liaison and coordinator between 
the whole thing. So my first appointment with Bernard, I 
took slides and background, and he took me to his office 
upstairs. He said, [with British accent] "Very well, 
Gordon, You like it here in London?" 

And I said, "I've only been here a short time, but I'm 
finding it to be a nice place." 

"Well, I'm glad you like it," he says. "We have lots 
of things going, you know. " And he said, "Are you 
hungry? " 

And I said, "Yeah, I haven't had any lunch." 

And he says, " Well, come along." So he took me down 
into the bottom of the embassy to the cafeteria, where we 
had lunch. He proceeded to tell me about the American 
embassy and how all of the eccentrics almost had 
disappeared from the embassy and that it was getting rather 
dull. The last director went off with one year of 
unanswered mail, back to America. They set him off on a 


ship back to New York--or Washington. He was dictating 
letters as he went to the ones he hadn't answered in one 
year. We were there for two hours, talking, and he was 
telling me about the Vauxhall generals and about everything 
in England. 

Finally, we went back to the office and he says, 
"Incidentally, Gordon, what was it that you wanted to see 
me about?" That was three o'clock in the afternoon. From 
eleven to three. I was-- I said, "Bernard, what I really 
wanted to talk to you about is an exhibition that I had up 
in Sweden, in Uppsala, and it's going on to SOdertaije 
[Konsthall] , Stockholm, in the museum. And I'm looking for 
a place- -I thought this city would like to share with me 
what I do . " 

"Oh, very well," he says. "We'll make an 
appointment. You come back next week, same time, same 
place, and we'll go through that." So another whole week 
went by not making any progress whatsoever. I looked a 
little more; I walked through the whole city of London; I 
know it by heart. But the more I walked through it, and 
the more I looked at the art I did see, it was a 
stimulating thing. In the museums I found, like the 
National Galleries with all the masters, a wonderful box by 
Samuel van Hoogstraten, who was an artist from Antwerp who 
created an environment about three feet square and about 


eighteen inches high. You looked through a hole and you 
saw this man with his dog in a corridor, and you went to 
the other hole and you saw a different scene, and it was 
all mirrors and painted. 

SMITH: Seventeenth-century artist, eighteenth century? 
WAGNER: Yeah, he was at the time of Rembrandt, a 
very early boxmaker. 

SMITH: Had you been aware of him at all? 

WAGNER: No, never heard of him. He only made five pieces 
that they can account for. I was really quite stimulated 
by what I was looking at there, the illusion, and painting 
with the illusion. So I let it go. I went back to a few 
places. I used to come out of the museums feeling like I 
was oh, about an eighth of an inch high, you know, after 
all-- It's good for your humility to go to museums of the 
great masters. Your ego disintegrates way, way down. 
Well, maybe my work's not so good, maybe I better think 
about something here, perfecting this or changing this and 
doing it a little differently. The other reason for that 
being that I was in desperation for money at that time. I 
was living on about ten to twelve pounds a week, which 
would be about normal for a lot of people. That's what 
schoolteachers were getting, which was equivalent at that 
time to about thirty-five dollars. During that exchange, 
at that moment, the pound was about $2.60. Well, I got to 


thinking about these things somehow subconsciously; however 
it worked out I'm not sure, but within my head were the 
drawings and what I was seeing and feeling from the 
masters. There was a transition going on within my head to 
become more narrative in what I'm doing and sort of move 
out of the fetish and the abstract. I had one gallery that 
I found that was interested in my work, and he kept-- 
SMITH: Which gallery was that? 

WAGNER: The Prudhoe Gallery, Raymond Prudhoe on Duke 
Street. He made no commitments, but he was interested in 
having my works. He was English, but he lived in New York 
and ran a clothing store in New York, some big store. His 
wife was a very rich woman from Spain who financed the 
gallery. Another man who I couldn't pin down, but he 
really liked my works tremendously, was a Frenchman by the 
name of Jean-Pierre Lehman. He had the Archer Gallery off 
of Bond Street. So those two hopes kept me dangling in 
London. It kept going, and I went back to Bernard: "Oh, 
wonderfully interesting, Gordon, you come again. I love 
it; I love what you're doing. Maybe we can arrange 
something for you." Let's see, that was in October. In 
February I was still waiting for some kind of a commitment 
from somewhere. Nothing was happening, and I'd been 
through all these wonderful experiences of the British, and 
I was drawing, and I started to make boxes myself. I made 


boxes from things I found in the back alleys. For the 
boxes themselves, I would go to the timber merchant and buy 
my wood. And walk. Walk and walk and walk. I carried 
wood on my back and glass to the glazier. I learned a 
whole lot of things about the British culture from becoming 
involved like this, actually living in the environment. We 
moved to Golders Green, which is sort of like where the 
Jewish people are of England; it's mostly all Jewish. It's 
near the Hampstead Heath, so I could walk on the Heath. I 
lived in the attic in the house of Kenneth Lloyd on Golders 
Green Crescent. It was a circular street right off from 
the tube, about a block away from the tube, so it was handy 
to go to London. The next street over was Golders Green, 
the whole community, so the stores were close at hand. It 
was a marvelous place to live, very convenient. It was 
about twenty minutes to London on the Northern Line. In 
the meantime, I met up with a lady there by the name of — 
At the Camden Art Center-- Anyway- - 
SMITH: It'll come to you. 

WAGNER: She was the director. Janice, Janice [Jackson] 
was her name. Well, I liked her a lot, and she liked me. 
So she invited Virginia and I to come out to her house in 
Perry Green in Much Hadham. She had a thatched-roof house, 
a real English thatched-roof house with walls of all the 
flint stones; beautiful house. She invited Virginia and I 


to come for lunch. She said, "Just go to the Liverpool 
Street Station, get off at Bishop Stortford, and we'll be 
there to pick you up." I thought that would be a nice 
trip, so we did that. When we got over there, she had this 
wonderful house. After we had this marvelous meal, she 
said, "Would you like to walk on the moors?" 

I said, "I've been waiting to walk on the moors all my 
life." It was a dream to walk on the moors. Very 

"Well," she said, "It's not exactly that kind of 
moors, it's Henry Moore's; he lives across the street." 

So I said, "That sounds like a good thing to do." So 
we walked out, and right across from her little road on the 
other side was a big barn. It was a studio filled with his 
sculpture and with people working on big pieces. From 
Alsace-Lorraine, I remember, one of the men; I talked to 
him. Then we went on down and kept going to different 
buildings where he had other things going on, cast and 
stone and a lot of maquettes. We kept on walking, and down 
over this rail, English turnstile gate, we stepped over the 
fence down into a sort of ravine. She says, "The principal 
reason for visiting here today, because there's a dump down 
there, and I think you might find some good things." 
Janice Jackson. Husband's name was Errol Jackson, who did 
all the photography for Henry Moore, did everything for his 


catalogs and-- So they were really close friends. 

So we went down there and I found a lot of very good 
pieces that I could use, objects and things, old things. 
We came back with about four dustbags full, you know, like 
plastic, like they throw--they call them the dustmen, they 
don't call them the trashmen- -dustbags, plastic sack. So 
we had about four almost full, and we were carrying them up 
over the hill, all this equipment. Then we went into Henry 
Moore's studio, where he worked personally. It was a very 
small room--I wouldn't say it was more than fifteen by 
sixteen feet total--with a window that looked out over his 
meadow where he had all these sheep grazing. He used to 
sit at the window and draw the sheep when they'd come up to 
the window. That's when he did his sheep-drawing series, 
all from the studio window. Then he had all these small 
pieces of rock, flint, and he'd add plaster to them and tie 
them. He was working things out for large pieces. But 
everything-- There was nothing there bigger than probably 
about eight inches by eight; it was small pieces that he 
worked on first, and then they would blow those up. It was 
an interesting studio. His printmaking studio was a huge, 
atriumlike studio connected to his house, where he did all 
of his etchings. It was a beautiful acreage; he must have 
had sixty, seventy acres of land there. 

So bringing the junk back to London, on the train- - 


We rode in a train that time that was--the car we got into 
was one of those short ones, you know, about four seats 
this way and four this way and in between. A little one. 
It was all right. We got back to the Liverpool Street 
Station, and then transferred the junk from the Liverpool 
Street Station to the Central Line, and then transferred 
from the Central Line at Oxford Circus to take the Northern 
Line. Walking through the tubes carrying all this junk was 
an experience that I won't forget. But it was an 
experience that made me feel more like I was part of that 
culture. Here's all this empire, but people are like 
this-- Royalty is operating the whole thing, but there's 
all these people doing all these things like ants, 
striving-- There's junkmen, there's junk dealers, there's 
horse and wagons, there's still, on the street, men selling 
cockles and whelks, and there's [people] collecting 
newspapers. It's a place-- England is such a sophisticated 
culture and so primitive at the same time. It's both 
ways. This is the thing that really hit me at that point, 
how much I loved the place because I could do all this; I 
could get on the tube with fifty people, on the 
underground, on the subway, and ride along with all my junk 
next to some elegant lady, next to some old character in a 
top hat, next to some other old man, like a wino, freezing 
to death. All this conglomerate of people together. I 


couldn't get away with that very much anywhere else; 
England I could. Because in the first place-- Bobbies 
there don't carry guns, they only say good day. It's a 
whole different social system. 

So I took all this stuff back to Golders Green and 
hauled it up into my attic. I found things there that 
started me out in the direction of found things in a 
narrative way; not fabricated, found things in a narrative 
way. An example of that would be that box that I had 
called the Hilltown Fire Brigade, where the fire engine is 
a found fire engine, the pump is a found pump of something 
else, and the monkey running the pumper and the man up in 
the firebox trying to put the fire out with the hose that 
has no water. This was in the Angel's Gate [Cultural 
Center] exhibition; it's owned by Marylyn Ginsberg. 
SMITH: That was made out of what you found in England? 
WAGNER: Yeah. Yeah. I found a lock this big around. 
Then I built a jail, like a prison, with bars, and I had a 
poor little figure behind this in this medieval door, gate, 
like she was locked in the prison and couldn't get out. 
The key was way down on the bottom, so she could never 
reach the key for the house to get it open. She was 
holding the bars. That was from my experience with the 
Tower of London. I was feeling all of this world of the 


SMITH: What you did in Hilltovm Fire Brigade, how do you 

distinguish that from what you were doing in, say, Mexican 


WAGNER: Well, the Mexican box was right along with that, 

about that time. You mean the Mexican Bus? 

SMITH: Mexican Bus, that's four years earlier. 

WAGNER: Yeah, that's right. I was still in that period, 

you see. Four years later I was still working with found 

objects, narrative. Yeah. 

SMITH: What about Three Faces of a Child? That's a box, a 

fabricated box, that you made in the same year as Hilltown 

Fire Brigade. Is that one of your earliest fabricated 


WAGNER: That's a very early one, because-- What year was 


SMITH: Nineteen seventy-three. 

WAGNER: It was just in the beginning of changing over. 

That one was-- The actual cabinet I made. The child's face 

is looking in the three mirrors, and around inside-- It's a 

beveled mirror, but each mirror has a different face. But 

it's the same child. Going back it looks like a child, but 

it's a young girl, a middle-aged girl and old lady, 

gnarled. Almost looking like the British women, some of 

them. They get very gnarled, the older ones. 

SMITH: Did you do that in England? 


WAGNER: No, but it was conceived there. I drew it up 

there with the idea in my sketchbook to do it sometime. 

See, some of the pieces I conceived in England, I didn't 

build them until I got back to America. Many that I built 

in England are in Belgium. They're still over there, I 

never brought them home. About maybe twenty of them I 

built in England were either sold in Belgium or are still 

in a gallery there. 

SMITH: I wanted to ask you about aleatory art. Had you 

used playing cards or dice imagery in your work before? 

WAGNER: No. No, I hadn't. I got into that through 

heraldry. Looking at heraldry between Sweden and England 

and Belgium and the Flemish painters. Way back to Bosch 

and Brueghel, they used playing cards even. The images-- 

It's a nice symbol, playing cards, from the aleatory 


SMITH: Had you used the I Ching previously in terms of 

helping you work on your art? The I Ching. 

WAGNER: Have I ever used I Ching? 

SMITH: No. Did you use I Ching in terms of your artwork? 

WAGNER: No. I can't say that I ever did. No, I never 

used the tai chi or the hexograms in any way in my art. I 

used it to figure out where I was by tossing the coins, but 

I never actually used it, no. 

SMITH: So you had your show at the American embassy? 


WAGNER: Yes. That was interesting. I guess it was 
March. I finally went back to Bernard Lang and I said, 
"Bernard, what am I going to do? I have to go back to 
America. Is there anything that you have--you got any 
ideas what I'm going to do here?" 

Well, he says, "As a matter of fact, I do. Last week, 
I called up the--" someplace in Berlin, it's called the 
house something. They show art. "And I'm going to give 
you an exhibition with two other people together. I'm 
going to give you an exhibition with Robert Bassler. Do 
you know him?" 
WAGNER: I said, "Yes, he ' s a Californian. " 

And also a French artist who lives in America, in New 
York. And he said, "I'm sure I can get him all right. 
I'll have it together." 

And I said, "Well, when?" 

And he said, "Well, how about in May of this year?" 
March, April, May. No, June, that's what it was, June. 

And I said, "Well, that sounds pretty good. We should 
be able to do that. I have to go home, I have to go back 
to America for a little while, get some things straightened 
out. We should be able to come back." 

And he said to me, "How are we going to get the works 
from- -where will they be?" 

I said, "Well, I don't even know when my show is going 


to be in Sweden. They told me it was going to be this 
spring. " 

"Oh well, that's no problem. Give me their telephone 
number. He called up the museum. That exhibition was 
going to end at the end of May. So he says, "Would you 
switch me over to the operator, please? Would you call the 
embassy, please." They called up the American embassy in 
Sweden . 

He said, "Yes, hold the line." [another phone 
conversation] "Yes, how you doing. Kit? How is everything 
in Paris? I've got an artist that I'd like to have you 
meet sometime. He's a good artist, and maybe you could 
give him an exhibition over there. I can't talk to you 
right this moment, I'm in a conversation with Stockholm." 

So he's back to Stockholm again: "Would we be able to 
pick up the works at the SOdertalje museum on the date that 
I will send you and ship them immediately to the American 
embassy so they will arrive by, let's make it by June 20? 
Okay, that's it. " 

"Yes, Paris." 

Another man comes in. "Bernard, it's important. How 
many tickets do you want for the Clutie show?" [laughter] 

He says, "When is it? Make it four." It was a puppet 
show for children, for his family. 

It's all going on like that, he's talking, you know. 


"Okay, Paris, put John Plompens on in Brussels. John, 
I'm sending you a man over here in about six months, 
Gordon Wagner. I want you to meet him. Send me on up to 
Amsterdam. I want to arrange for him to have an exhibition 
in Amsterdam." 

He's doing all this over a desk. Then he said, "One 
more call I'll make." He calls up the Prudhoe Gallery, and 
he said, "Mr. Prudhoe, Bernard Lang of the embassy. I'm 
giving Gordon an exhibition in June, and I think it would 
be quite nice if we had half of the works here and the 
other half in your gallery, don't you? After all, you're 
only two blocks away, and we can both have annexes." 

Prudhoe says, "Of course, we'll do it." 

When he did it, he did it. He didn't ask, he just did 
it. It was just like that, the whole thing just solved 
itself. He shipped all the works and did the whole 
thing. We came back about a week before the opening, back 
to London, and helped them set up the exhibition. I wanted 
to be there for the installation. Bernard is such a funny 
man, and he's a real pleasure to work with. I've never met 
a man like him in my life. Sense of humor and joy and 
knowing what he's doing. A real wonderful person. 

Then we went back to Los Angeles. I didn't bring 
anything with me, I was just going to show what I had in 
Sweden first and see how that came out. So then we went 


back again to London. While I was over here for that month 

and a half, two months, Kenneth Stone of Stone Publications 

was working with my Memories of the Future, finishing up 

that edition that he'd started, so it was possible for me 

to have some of those to return to London with. So I 

shipped off-- 

SMITH: The lithograph series. 

WAGNER: Yeah. I shipped off about, oh, ten sets of those. 

SMITH: When had you done the drawings for Memories of the 


WAGNER: In New Mexico, in Taos. 

SMITH: When? 

WAGNER: About 1968 or '69. In the summer when we would 

stay in New Mexico for three months, when we lived there, 

when we had our home there. I worked there on all of the 


SMITH: And the poems were written-- 

WAGNER: Different times; over a period of time. From 

Mexico. They were all compiled very late. 

SMITH: I wanted to ask you, in terms of-- You mentioned 

the feelings you felt in England in terms of the layers of 

society, riding the tube and being with different types of 

people; the absurdity that you were aiming at-- How is that 

reflected in the work--or is it reflected in the work you 

are doing now? Is Firaskew, for example, or The [Interior] 


Castle of Saint Teresa [also known as The Castle of the 
Seven Dwelling Places] , do they reflect that kind of 
feeling that you had then? 

WAGNER: Firaskew does, very much. Because I find that 
real cities, like New York and London and Paris, the people 
are so close together and so with each other that there is 
no time for loneliness in that way. Because they don't 
have to be lonely, they can get out there and be right with 
the people. And they can feel. They always make some kind 
of a contact with a person. If you just walk out on the 
street in England, you'll make contact with somebody. The 
quickest way that I know to make contact with the British 
is to ask directions to somewhere. They'll go on and on, 
give you a history of that whole two or three blocks where 
you're going to walk and what happened there four, five 
hundred years ago. So you never have to worry about 


FEBRUARY 21, 1987 

WAGNER: People who think that the New Yorkers and the 
British and people like that are snobbish and not friendly 
are absolutely wrong. If you walk in London, the people 
aren't going to say, "Hi, hi, hi, how are you?" They don't 
even make eye contact with another person, they're so used 
to being within the movement of the people. There is no 
contact that way, but on a personal basis, when you meet 
them in some situation where you like them, you know 
immediately, and they like you, and you have a long- 
standing friend, it's not just a flash. They go in depth, 
because they have that ability of mastering the English 

Even to the man on the street. I asked one day where 
this building was with a stained-glass window. He was a 
poor-looking old man; you'd take him here as a street 
person. And I said, "I know there's a building down here 
someplace, and it has this beautiful dome." And he says, 
[with Cockney accent] "Yeah, right down here about a 
block. Let's go, I'll show you." He takes me there. He 
said, "When I listen to you, I can tell by the cut a your 
tongue you ayn ' t one of our countrymen. Where you comin' 
from?" He says, "You comin' from Canada? Or maybe one of 
the colonies, or New Zealand, Austraylia? I know where 


you're comin' from. You're comin' from Olland." 

I said, "No, I'm coming from America." 

"You're not comin' from America, I know that. You're 
not talkin' like an American," [laughter] he tells me. 

But this was just getting a direction. Now, you could 
go on with that man for ten years, because he was ready to 
be your friend. And it's this way. 

SMITH: Firaskew, you did a drawing of Firaskew in that 
period. Is that the beginning of the sculpted piece, of 
the assemblage? 

WAGNER: Well, it was the first idea that I had about 
making something that would relate to something. I had no 
conception of what it really was. I had notes and segments 
and fragments of Firaskew in sketches and sketchbooks, 
notes and dreams written about it. But nothing solid. 
SMITH: At that time what did Firaskew mean to you? What 
was it? 

WAGNER: It's only a name that comes from a dream that was 
marked on a beer can or the side of a wall when I'm going 
in my dreams. I'd run into this sign, "Firaskew," with an 
arrow pointing. It's either through a cleavage in the 
rocks or it's marked on the highway or on a dirt road. I 
always find myself in this environment where the cities, 
buildings, are usually out of proportion. Some of them are 
very complicated, tied together with spiderwebs, total 


mirrors. Sometimes they have churches with a streetcar 
running down the pews or down the center aisle. The 
streetcar has been, has come up a mountain where you can 
never see the city, you only can see under it at all times 
till it reaches the top, ascending upward. It has so 
many different meanings, so many different places I've been 
on my nocturnal voyages, that it's hard to-- I could build 
twenty of these from the different concepts. I just took 
one out of one dream. The way it sort of juxtaposed 
itself, that's this one. 

SMITH: Are you going to build any more of those? 
WAGNER: I'm thinking about building several, probably, in 
my lifetime. 

SMITH: In terms of the drawings, the Firaskew drawings 
that relate to the London period, how would you compare 
that with, say, the work of [Maurits] Escher? 
WAGNER: Well, I don't think it would be compared to 
Escher. Escher was a man who was working more in 
architectural illusions, in negative and positive space to 
create trompe I'oeil. My drawings had something else in 
their mind than that. They weren't mechanical problems, 
mathematical problems, they were actually feelings of 
nonsense. They were sort of rebuses, that's what they 
were. There was no place for mechanical, mathematical, 
constructed drawings and paintings with that kind of 



SMITH: You mentioned once that your work after this 
period, you were exploring the absurd, but it wasn't a 
critique. Could you explain that a little bit more? You 
were showing that society was absurd, but you weren't 
criticizing it. 
WAGNER: Absolutely. 

SMITH: That sounds like a contradiction, so could you 
explain that? 

WAGNER: No, I believe that the absurd is very important. 
And I think that not-- There are too many critics, and 
there are not enough people who explore the absurd and 
laugh and enjoy it. The critic just criticizes it without 
enjoying it. And after all, I believe the irrational 
absurdity and nonsense is one of our most important 
elements in order to exist in this society. It's sort of a 
counterforce against the negation of a lot of people who 
are putting things down and showing the ugliness and the-- 
I want to show funny things, joy. Not from a critical 
aspect at all; I'm not even looking at it from that. Just 
being part of it. I would be one of the elements within 
the piece. 

SMITH: Shifting a little bit, how would you compare the 
stuff that you found in English dumps with the things that 
you found in California dumps? 


WAGNER: Wetter, greener, mossier, slimier, and hardly any 

rust. Hardly any rust. 

SMITH: Why was that? 

WAGNER: I don't know why things get that way, but they get 

kind of mossy and green. A lot of lichen gets on the junk, 

because it's so damp. Damp, really damp. Everything I 

found I had to take it home and dry it out for about a week 

before I could use it, because it was just permeated. 

SMITH: Then didn't you lose the greeness of the damp, of 

the lichen? 

WAGNER: Yeah, but then you have this wonderful blackness 

that comes out. Yeah. Even the wood gets that way. 

SMITH: Were the objects different, what was thrown away 


WAGNER: Oh, yeah. Quite a few things that I found, 

Victorian pieces and junk like that. Some glasses and 

figures, small figures. I got one wonderful — Two of them 

I actually found, figures, one was of Ren6 Magritte, about 

this high. 

SMITH: A figure of Magritte? 

WAGNER: Yeah, a figure. 

SMITH: Of him or by him? 

WAGNER: Of him. I found that one. I still have that 

piece right here in the house. Another one was a burgher 

woman. I put her into a box called the Theatre of the 


Upside Down, where I had her on a stage in confusion 
standing on an egg in the clouds. She's looking back 
through endless doors, and up on the top there's the city 
of Antwerp, and there's the Schelde with the barges. But 
it's all upside down. You have to turn the box over to see 
that it's Antwerp and the Schelde and the water. I found 
those both there. 

SMITH: I'd like to get into the topic of your constructed 
boxes. You started making them in England? 
WAGNER: I started building these things — What actually 
happened was that I really took a new look, also, from the 
surrealist aspect. I met a surrealist there who is 
probably the best living surrealist in England at the 
present time by the name of Conroy Maddox. He wrote a book 
recently on [Salvador] Dali. Getting to these people and 
to-- What was his name? Stephan de Villiers-- 
SMITH: Marcel Jean? Are you talking about Marcel Jean? 
WAGNER: No, Stephan de Villiers, he was a surrealist. Max 
White Joyce, who was the critic on the [International 
Herald -Tribune] who really encouraged surrealism in 
England, and Jean-Pierre Lehman and his friend by the name 
of Jacques something, from Belgium. About, oh, fifteen to 
twenty other artists that I met, we were all stimulated by 
going back and really getting back into what surrealism is 
all about. We really studied it, so it became sort of 


our--almost a renaissance to us, rebirth within us. 
Poetry, and all of them. So we really went into it 
extensively. John Lyle Press, in Devon, who had all of the 
original manifestoes and books, wonderful surrealist books, 
one-of-a-kind editions. All of these things became part of 
my head, and I realized that I would like to get a little 
purer and not use the objects and the junk. Really get 
into a pure form. But at that time, I was about to teach 
at the Camden Art Center, and I met many, many fine people 
and fine artists there. There was this whole movement, I 
think. It was regenerating itself again, you know, to go 
back through this, getting back into surrealism. 
SMITH: In terms of your constructed boxes, looking at the 
development over the last fifteen years, it strikes me that 
the boxes started out much larger than you ' re now making 
them. Is that a correct perception? Were your boxes in 
the seventies larger than your boxes in the eighties, by 
and large? 

WAGNER: No, it all depended on what I wanted to develop 
from that. No, I don't think the scale or dimension means 
much. It wasn't a controlling factor of anything. It just 
happened that way. 

SMITH: Yeah. The other thing that seems to be happening 
is the figures, the scale within the box gets smaller. 
Like the box [Black Sun] that you have in the other room 


with the woman in the mirror--! forget the name of that 
box--the figure is a foot high. In Firaskew and many of 
these other things, you are now using figures that are less 
than an inch. 

WAGNER: Yeah, I've done that on purpose. I'm trying to 
take a small environment, without filling it up, and make 
it seem very large with only very small things so it 
seems- -it seems monumental in a very small area by doing 
the scale, by reducing the scale of the objects related to 
the landscape. 

SMITH: Now, you call these constructed boxes, but many of 
the elements in the box are, look like, toy figures. Are 
those figures that you find in the street, or do you go and 
buy them, or how are they-- Were some of them made? 
WAGNER: Well, the ones that are actually made figures are 
by manufacturers. I found them in different places. 
Sometimes I'll find them on the street, sometimes I'll find 
them in a junk store, sometimes in a cake decorating 
company. If I just happen to be walking someplace; I'm 
never looking for them. But I say, "Gee, those are nice. 
I'll pick those up, maybe I could use them someday." You 
know, I don't buy them with any specific purpose in life at 
all. I'm always looking for realistic figures. Not cute 
figures, not rabbits and cute, little things, not angels 
and things of that nature; realistic figures that are 


actually to scale of what they are. Like you won't find 
any cute objects on any piece I've ever made, because I 
can't stand cute art. I found these four girls the other 
day on the street. Who knows what will ever happen to 
them, but they were waiting for me to pick them up. They 
were from somebody's party, I suppose. 

SMITH: They were just on the sidewalk, in the gutter? 
WAGNER: In the alley. 

SMITH: In the alley. i 

WAGNER: Yeah, right near the art store down there, near 
the Espresso Bar. A man who has been very nice and gives 
me objects and things and I trade with him--we don't trade, 
I give him things that I think he likes and he'll hand me 
something that he thinks I'll like--is Bruce Houston. 
Bruce is always, "Hey, I'd like to give you this. Look 
here! Introduce yourself," you know. "She'll talk to 
you. Yes, introduce yourself." Bruce, he's a child at 
heart, like it should be. He talks to all his people and 
objects. So, really, the transition between the large-- I 
find that if you build the environment and then put the 
people in on the right scale, it really makes it more 
powerful than if the person is dominating the whole 
environment. It's like a giant within a house, you know? 
Gnomes are much more beautiful in houses, little people, 
you know, than a giant; it takes up too much space. 


SMITH: Still, the titles seem to be an important part of 

the overall piece. I'm wondering if the title and the 

conception come to you at the same time? 

WAGNER: Sometimes. Sometimes I build the piece around the 

title--it's really the conception, you know. Sometimes 

not. Sometimes I have to think of a title. The last piece 

I built--out there--it had to do with the ship up on the 

mountain and the town below, you know, to give it that 

dimension of the desert mountain and the riverboat up in 

the bushes, and down below the white city. Well, there was 

only — I couldn't think of a title for that, but then it 

came out of my dream. Just like that, it hit it. It's 

called Town Ship. 

SMITH: Well, that brings up the whole topic of pun boxes. 

WAGNER: Exactly. 

SMITH: You have done some pun boxes that go back to the 

sixties. It seemed to me they were-- 

WAGNER: No, these are all done in the eighties, these pun 

boxes . 

SMITH: But weren't there a couple-- Well, Circus in a 

Keyhole, that's not really a pun box. No, okay, I'll take 

that back. 

WAGNER: Oh, I've used puns from time to time in pieces, 

but the whole Pun Series was done in the eighties. 

SMITH: Okay, well, let's talk about the Pun Series. 


WAGNER: Oh, that's getting a little far ahead, I think, 
I've got to go through-- First, I'd like to go back through 
the boxes that I developed. 

After my show in England, during that time, Jean- 
Pierre Lehman and his friend, Jacques, said, "You've got to 
go to Belgium, my friend, you are missing the boat. 
England is not the place for you, it's Belgium." 

And I said, "Why Belgium?" 

"Well," they said, "you've got to go there for several 
reasons: The people in Belgium will really love what you 
are doing. And not only will they love what you are doing, 
but you told us one time that you had an uncle named Jean- 
Frangois Millet, a great uncle, and you know, he was 
Flemish, and you should go and find out about all these 
things. " 

So we did just that. Virginia and I went to Bruges 
from London, took the train, while we were having my 
exhibition. From Bruges we went on to Gent and stopped in 
Gent. I was told by Jan Thunholm in Sweden to check out 
about three or four galleries in Gent, because- -and also 
Arthur Secunda said it was a good place. So I went to 
Arthur's first gallery. I'd already sent that man pictures 
years ago, and I'd forgotten about it. So I went to see 
him. "Oh yeah, I know you. I've got your pictures in my 
desk. When do you want to have an exhibition?" 


I said, "Well, I have things in England now, in 
London . " 

"Well, I couldn't give the exhibition before five 
years, I'm tied up. Go see my friend [Raoul van der 
Veecken] down around the corner, [Galerij] Kaleidoscoop, 
he'll probably help you." 

I went there; he looked at them, he says, "When do you 
want the show?" And I went to two other galleries in Gent; 
they said, "Yeah, when would you like to have a show?" So 
I finally had to make a choice between the three. 

I went to Brussels and found three galleries there, 
the same thing. The three I went to all wanted to give me 
a show. And I said, "Well, I have a show in London. I 
want to have a show here in Gent and then Brussels, then 
I'd like to work it out so I have one in Amsterdam." 

So they said, "You come back." 

In the meantime, a lady in Brussels, Madame Beele of 
[Galerie] 1 ' Angle-Aigu, she said, "Bring some works back 
with you very soon, I'd like to show them in my gallery and 
keep them here. I have people coming all the time." About 
that time Joan Shors, who's a critic for the American 
newspaper in Brussels, walked in and said, "They'll love 
your work. They only think of one thing in Belgium: 
surrealism. Everybody's going to love your work." That 
encouraged me . 


I went back to England, I told Bernard Lang what I had 
arranged, and he said, "Don't forget to see my friend John 
Plompens, he'll help you. Anything you want done. He's at 
the American embassy in Brussels. He'll take care of 
everything for you." So that was going to happen in, let's 
see, February, March. 

SMITH: What year are we talking about? 
WAGNER: ' Seventy- four . That's when it was going to 
happen. From London we went back home, and we stayed there 
until February. So I had a show lined up at Kaleidoscoop 
for February, March; March it was. March 4, I think, 
yeah. Then it went to Brussels in April, and it went to 
Amsterdam in June. So I had real — I had it all 
scheduled. In Amsterdam, I had it in the American library 
[Nederland Amerika Instituut] , the first show. Then from 
there I was asked to have another show in Amsterdam in the 
Israel Galeri j , where they called me the American Jew. 
SMITH: Why? 

WAGNER: They thought I was, that's all. The critic, 
naturally, being the Israel Galeri j , [thought] I must be an 
American Jew. 
SMITH: I see, Wagner. 

WAGNER: The name Wagner could be. The Dagblatt, 
SMITH: Did you sell well in Europe? 
WAGNER: Yeah, very. 


SMITH: Better than in the United States? 

WAGNER: Well, when you take it as an exhibition, yes; from 

an exhibition standpoint, yes. A one-man show, yeah. 

SMITH: What about the criticism? 

WAGNER: Excellent criticism, wonderful critics. The 

French critics and the Flemish critics, they have a 

wonderful quality about the way they write; they're not 

destructive or self -oriented. They get into-- They really 

are observers rather than-- They really live within your 


SMITH: When did you begin to introduce trompe I'oeil into 

your work? 

WAGNER: About '74, right after I came back from Belgium. 

SMITH: What kind of things were you doing, what kind of 

tricks were you trying to play? 

WAGNER: A lot of boxes with mirrors and trick angles. I 

used a lot of rational symbols like checkerboards and 

architecture of-- A feeling like it was a game. And not 

putting anything on these rational formats that had 

anything to do with anything but nonsense, the irrational. 

SMITH: How does The Phantom fit into this period? 

WAGNER: Now, The Phantom you're talking about is the 

shadow coming out on the floor without anybody in the 

door. It fits into the period very well, because it was 

done about that time, '74, '75. 


SMITH: 'Seventy- five. 

WAGNER: It was the beginning of using these phantom 
objects in the glass, like illusions of glass and putting 
the ghost forms behind them. At that time I was doing that 
with mirrors. I was also creating physical impossibilities 
like The Bowler bowling through the wall. There's a brick 
wall dividing the box with the bowler. He's bowling, but 
his shadow goes under the wall, but he can't get through 
himself. On the floor, the shadow goes through. And then 
the one of the shadow that fell down. The floor tipped up, 
and it had boards on one side and the dark figure of the 
man is on the other. But the shadow fell down on the 
stairs and is in three dimensions going up and fragmented 
as a person, the shadow. It's called The Shadow of a 
Doubt. These are all in collections of shadow pieces. 
SMITH: What about Separate Reflections? 
WAGNER: That one is-- It's in a building where a 
businessman is all dressed up in his necktie and his suit, 
off for work, but on the other side in the room there's a 
mirror, and he was such a disgusting person that his 
reflection stayed home in the mirror. 

SMITH: In terms of the mirror tricks, did that involve a 
lot of experimentation in order to get-- Let me rephrase 
that question. Did the concept for the effect come first, 
or did you have to play with your materials and see things 



WAGNER: Well, not really, because I can draw these things 
out pretty well, the angles where mirrors are, and the 
like. I build all my boxes-- I draw them all first to 
scale; everything, every detail is to scale, like in 
building a house. So I know the angles and can develop all 
that on a piece of paper so that when it goes together, 
there it is; I don't make mistakes and spend a lot of money 
and a lot of time going back and trying to figure out what 
happened. Because it's usually all drawn out before I ever 
touch a piece of wood or a mirror or anything else; I know 
exactly how it's going to fit. 

SMITH: What does mirror imagery signify to you? Why was 
it so particularly appealing to you? 

WAGNER: Well, it's always been fascinating. Mirrors have 
always been fascinating to everybody, I think, because 
people spend a lot of time in front of mirrors. Actually, 
the only real thing is the mirror; everything it reflects 
is unreal. Mirrors, to me-- Magicians use mirrors; mirrors 
were signs of elegance in castles and coffeehouses and 
buildings; mirrors change dimensions of things; mirrors 
create illusions of things that don't exist; they create 
illusions of things that do exist but are not there. They 
do all sorts of things that fascinate me. The more I can 
adapt the mirror to doing something-- There's just not that 


many ways you can-- After a while you run out of things to 

do with mirrors. You can send things to infinity; you can 

move rooms; you can transfer people from one place to 

another; you can go through mazes and labyrinths. But 

actually, after a while you can't keep doing the same thing 

over and over again, you know. 

SMITH: But you use--almost all of those techniques are in 


WAGNER: Well, this was kind of a compilation of using all 

the things that I had previously done with images. In some 

way or other, I could adapt them into this, into Firaskew. 

SMITH: So how long did you work with mirrors as a major 

theme in your work? 

WAGNER: Actually, I used mirrors a little, not in the 

sense of the mirror as I used it in--I would have a mirror 

in a piece, you know, but to perform magic tricks in front 

of your eyes, about '74, '75 I started using mirrors, I'd 


At the same time, I started fabricating my materials 
rather than-- Because being in Belgium-- You can't find 
anything in Belgium. There's nothing to find. It's such a 
clean country, it's just spotless. They don't throw things 
away in Belgium; there's no trash. So you are forced to 
make things, and so that's where I started, actually, in 
'73, when I worked there. And I was making new pieces. I 


had to make new pieces; I had to show-- The exact amount of 
pieces that came into the country had to leave the 
country. After all, I sold over half of the works in 
Belgium. I had to replace those to get my works out of 
Belgium or I'd have to pay a super heavy duty. They let me 
come in with my works for three months to have my shows, 
and then out the other side. But nothing was to be sold. 
I had to get it all--I had to replace everything. 

But they'd never seen any of the things, they just 
knew it was art in boxes. So when I went to the border, I 
had the same: just art in boxes. The guy said, "Well, let 
me see what you do." So I had to undo the whole crate, and 
he counted them. I had matchboxes, and I had tiny little 
boxes like this; anything to say it's a box. "And what do 
you value these pieces?" I said, "Five dollars apiece, 
that's what I came in with." 

I sold about twenty in Gent and five in Brussels, out 
of about thirty- five. So I was busy making things the 
whole time I was living in Gent, which was probably about, 
at that time, three months that I could stay there. I had 
to start right away. I had a $17-a-month studio up on the 
roof and a place to work. I was working night and day to 
get these-- Virginia was here and I was there. She didn't 
come over until Easter, so I had lots of time to work. 
SMITH: One of the things I wanted to ask you about your 


stay in Sweden, England and Belgium, perhaps Belgium and 

England in particular, was, were you attracted to the 

symbols of medieval Christianity? Did that begin to 

interest you at that time? 

WAGNER: Belgium, no; Sweden, no; England, yes. Some of 

the artifacts, like censers of that time, that were in the 

British Museum, some of that medieval art of that time was 

incredible. Patinas and censers for the incense burners 

for the castles, and the playing cards, you know. They had 

playing cards cut out for the smoke to come through, for 

the censers, you know? 

SMITH: Yeah. 

WAGNER: All of that sort of thing fascinated me. I did 

drawings of them, as a matter of fact. I've got them in my 

Under the Crown series, a couple of them, where the king is 

balanced on his censer puffing the smoke from underneath, 

from a chimney pot. He's just floating up there, he could 

collapse at any moment. 

SMITH: So in terms of your religious development, your 

stay in Europe did not draw--it was not an aspect of 

drawing you back to Catholicism, or drawing you into 


WAGNER: I was never drawn back to Catholicism because I 

wasn't a Catholic in the first place. I never was, so I 

couldn't be drawn back. But I appreciated going to the 


Catholic church, because everybody goes to Catholic church 
in Europe, because that's where all the art is. Incredible 
art in the churches. Like in Gent: one of the greatest 
paintings in the world is in the Saint Bavo ' s Cathedral, 
the [Adoration] of the Mystic Lamb [by Hubert and Jan van 
Eyck] . So many great paintings. Antwerp has some great 
paintings in there. They've got one of Michelangelo and 
one of da Vinci and all the Rubens; some of his most 
important paintings are in the cathedral at Antwerp. So 
there's a feeling that gets you off the street to go into 
the cathedrals. You feel like you're protected there. I 
was fascinated by some of the things. I used to go into 
the church at mass and sit in the back row. Just sit 
there, meditate. Like a yogi or something. But I felt a 
lot, and I cried; I used to cry in churches in Europe. It 
was like a purging of my inner self from the feelings of 
the music, the great music of Bach and-- They had the 
greatest concerts of all of them in the Saint Bavo's 
Cathedral. That's where Bach did his first Saint Matthew's 
Passion. The first place he ever did it was in Gent, in 
Saint Bavo's Cathedral, the preview; he conducted. That 
kind of feeling, it's-- Naturally, there's a certain 
feeling of the spiritual. It's all so cleansing. But as 
far as being brought back to the church, that had nothing 
to do with it whatsoever because I never was in the church 


in the beginning. My wife, my first wife, was a Catholic, 
and my children went to church and were baptized, but I 
wasn't. I thought I was part of it. I thought they'd 
given me some papers that would make me that way, but I 
never followed it. 

SMITH: I'd like to talk a little bit about Russian Hill 

WAGNER: That's an interesting piece that relates sort of 
to the same as The Phantom and Georgette and Separate 
[Reflections] , taking people and putting them into sort of 
impossible positions. I was always fascinated by a window 
next to my house there, the kitchen window. In San 
Francisco, you look out of your kitchen window and often 
you'll see somebody else's staircase running down the side 
of it. This particular one, the staircase was running down 
and around until you saw the underside of the stairs. And 
I used to visualize somebody actually walking horizontally 
up the underside of those stairs. It was a nice impossible 
situation. What I was trying to get was "impossibility" in 
my art. Impossibility, as Laszlo Logosi, I believe, quoted 
one time, "Impossibility is the operative mode of art," 
when he did the film Szirkus, the Ferenc Karinthy story. 


FEBRUARY 28, 1987 

SMITH: We left off last time with your coming to 

Belgium. You had a show in Gent, three shows going at more 

or less the same time in Gent, Brussels and Amsterdam. How 

long did you stay in Belgium? 

WAGNER: That time I stayed about-- Well, first I was in 

Belgium for about two months, and then I went off for a 

little trip to Madrid. Then I came back to Belgium; I had 

my studio there. Then I went up to Amsterdam, up to that, 

and stayed in Amsterdam for two months. Then I came back 

to Belgium again, and I was there for another three months. 

Put it all together, and it makes about seven months, I 

guess, right? 

SMITH: Did you go back to Belgium later? 

WAGNER: Oh, yeah. 

SMITH: Have you continued to-- Through the seventies? 

WAGNER: In '79 I went back again. When I left Belgium I 

came back home to Silver Lake. 

SMITH: Where were you showing in Belgium? Who were your 


WAGNER: My first gallery show was in Gent, and my gallery 

dealer was Raoul van der Veecken. He had the Galerij 

Kaleidoscoop. Wonderful art dealer, wonderful man. A real 

joy to be with him and his family. I don't think I've ever 


laughed so much in my whole life as I did with that man. 
He had a tremendous wit and sense of humor. We both were 
in complete rapport with one another. It was interesting, 
because at the exhibition he told me that everybody liked 
my work. Gallery openings in Belgium are usually on Sunday 
morning from ten to one, and everyone comes, all the 
families, children by the tons, everybody comes. They go 
to all of the galleries within the city on that morning, 
all the openings. They call them vemlssages, or 
■tentoonstellingen in Dutch, which means opening. You meet 
some of the most amazing people at these openings. You try 
to communicate with them in some way by learning their 
language a little bit, trying. They can speak enough 
English, so between the two of us, we get along just fine. 

At the end of the show, at the end of the opening, I 
said, "Well, how did it do, Raoul?" 

He said, "Well," he says, "that piece over there is 
the only one I see that we're not going to sell." 
SMITH: Which piece was that? 

WAGNER: "Because I'm buying that for myself," he says. 

SMITH: Oh, I see. These are all constructed boxes? 
WAGNER: They were all boxes. 

SMITH: Not funk boxes, but constructed boxes. 
WAGNER: No, they were funk boxes. They were within the 


old context of found objects from England and some from 
Sweden, and different things. Plus the ones that I had in 
Sweden. I had a pretty good collection then, close to 
fifty pieces, you know, that I could-- We actually showed 
about thirty, so I still had some left over for Brussels. 
But it was an amazing exhibition and an amazing turnout. 
It's a university city, Gent, a very old university. 
Professors were there, the heads of the music department, 
all sorts of interesting people live in Gent. It has a 
population of 500,000 people. It's a very old city. In 
fact, it was the second largest city in northern Europe 
next to Paris. 
SMITH: At one time. 

WAGNER: At one time, yeah. So the whole place, it feels 
right to me. I still love to go there, and I just kiss the 
street like I was back home. 

SMITH: But you had mentioned once--this was a long time 
ago when we first met--going to Belgium was in some ways 
like returning home, home to the world of the piers. Could 
you explain that a little bit more? 

WAGNER: Yeah. When I went there the first time from 
London, when I arrived in Oostende on the boat, it was all 
of a sudden some feeling that I was home, that I'd been 
there before in some other time or period in my life. I 
was really home, and I knew it; I could feel it. There was 


no way to explain it, but-- There was a warmth. And the 
architecture, the beauty-- Most people don't even like 
Belgium. They never advertise it in the tourist guides. 
Nobody goes to Belgium. It's wonderful, because the 
Belgians discourage advertising Belgium; thej want to keep 
it the way it is. Belgium is so full of great art; some of 
the greatest, the Flemish. The cities are so--they're not 
spoiled, no high rise, no junk, no Bauhaus-type of high 
rises in the city. 
SMITH: Some in Brussels, but-- 
WAGNER: No, I'm talking about Gent. 
SMITH: Oh, Gent, yeah. 

WAGNER: They've kept it the way it is, the old buildings, 
the old way. Bruges is the same way; you wouldn't see 
anything like that in Bruges. The countryside going there 
was like when my great-uncle, Jean-Frangois Millet, painted 
the landscapes and the feeling of the peasants, of the 
gleaners in the Angelus. Probably the reason I like 
Belgium-- I can't understand it. My mother was from Paris, 
and my father was from Amsterdam, so maybe I'm supposed to 
be in between in Belgium. [laughter] 
SMITH: Well, that's a possibility, yeah. 
WAGNER: The more I was in Belgium, the more I realized 
that people there are like people from fantasy, fairyland 
people. Their whole makeup is surreal, the way they are. 


the way they think. That's why I think that surrealism was 
very strong in Belgium. More painters came from Belgium 
that were surrealist than probably any other country, 
because they were actually influenced by the Salon 20, 
which was the group of the Dreamers of Decadence, you know, 
Jan Toorop and G. [Georges-Antoine] Rochegrosse and Fernand 
Khnopff. They were all Belgians, all those symbolists 
before surrealism, and they belonged to the Rosicrucian, 
rose cross. So with that energy within the country-- You 
can't explain what it is, but it's in the air. It's the 
light of Bosch, it's the light of Brueghel in the 
atmosphere, the clear, steel-blue light. There's no light 
like it anyplace; it's a painter's light. All of those 
elements make up some sort of an alchemical solution that 
made me realize, well, I was home again. 

SMITH: I wanted today to talk about surrealism and your 
relationship to surrealism. In our last session, you 
mentioned that you had embarked, at this period of your 
life, on an intensive study of surrealism. How did that 

WAGNER: Well, it really, actually, started in Belgium, 
where I really wanted to go into it. I started reading all 
of the manifestoes everything on [Andre] Breton, everything 
on [Paul] Eluard, everything on [Robert] Desnos; and 
realizing [Rene] Magritte was a Belgian, Paul Delvaux was a 


Belgian, Le6n Spillieart and a lot of younger ones. 
Surrealism was strong, and when I would talk to these young 
men from the academy, I found that that would just about be 
the only art interest they had. 
SMITH: Which academy are you talking about? 
WAGNER: In Gent, the painting academy of Gent, which is an 
excellent academy. In Antwerp I had the same reaction to 
the gallery that handled my work in Antwerp, the Galerij Te 
Zwarte [Panter] . Adrian van Raemdonck was the owner, and 
he was only interested in showing surrealism. Belgian 
surrealism was stronger at that time than at any other time 
in the history of art. Well, I was very influenced by it, 
and I started to think that-- I had realized these people 
existed, but being from the funk school, and whatnot, we 
were still doing dada surrealism and California funk. We 
were influenced by it indirectly. 

SMITH: Did you know you were doing it when you did it? 
WAGNER: I wasn't that much interested in what school it 
was; it was just the California funk school. When I 
started looking at the objects of Breton and [Joan] Mir6 
and a lot of the assemblages of these early surrealists, I 
realized they pretty much had been into that. Also, I 
realized that the daddy of them all was probably Marcel 
Duchamp, who was into the object. 
SMITH: Did you realize this, say, in connection with the 


Duchamp show at the Pasadena Art Museum? 

WAGNER: I knew there was a parallel, definitely. The same 
with Joseph Cornell at the Pasadena Art Museum and Ren6 
Magritte at the Pasadena Art Museum. I knew there was a 
parallel, and I knew that we were in simpatico. If I would 
have met them, we would have been able to be good friends, 
because we were all in the airwaves, you know. 
SMITH: Were you studying surrealism by yourself or was it 
with other artists, other poets? 

WAGNER: By reading and by being with artists who had that 
sort of tendency. I think it just evolved automatically. 
SMITH: Were there California artists who shared this 
interest with you? Any names in particular? 
WAGNER: Well, at that particular time there were quite a 
few artists that were doing parallel things, like [Edward] 
Kienholz and Artie Richer and Tony Berlant, Charles 

SMITH: We're talking sixties now, fifties, sixties. But 
you were not studying surrealism at this time yet? 
WAGNER: No, I was making art, not worried at all about any 
of it. 

SMITH: Yeah. 
WAGNER: Just making art. 

SMITH: But you began to study surrealism in the mid- 
seventies when you went to Belgium? 


WAGNER: When I felt there was a movement. I realized at 
that moment that surrealism to me was beyond dada and 
funk. So that's when my change actually came, was in 
Belgium. It evolved into the more narrative, like with the 
figure and telling something of the humor, the wit; not 
just found objects, but starting to fabricate the 
objects. It was at that time I knew I had to go beyond 
funk, I had to step over the boundries. By reading all of 
these people here, from Max Ernst to Breton to Delvaux to 
Duchamp, I collected every bit of fragment. I still do; 
anything that has to do with surrealism is either filed in 
my cigar boxes of small drawings or small postcards into my 
bookcases, all surrealism. I'm still a surrealist fanatic, 
because there ' s never going to be a death of surrealism 
because it was never born. 

SMITH: Well, at the time you were studying surrealism in 
the seventies, were there other artists with whom you were 
discussing it? 

WAGNER: Oh sure. In Belgium there were many. Like Lucien 
Cornells was one of my best friends in Belgium. Then there 
was Arnold Verhe and there was Camille Dav6, who was one of 
the best surrealists in Belgium. He died recently. And 
Pierre Roobjee, who was a poet. All of these men were very 
much in simpatico with me. They would come and invite me 
to their projects. Lionel Vinche. They all did surrealist 


objects and combined painting and sculpture. They were all 
in the museums in Belgium. A wonderful group of people. 
We talked about it all the time in the coffeehouses. I 
would go into the coffeehouse, and they would say to me, 
"Goeden avond, Graf," which means good evening. Count. 
Because that was my name; they named me that, the Count of 
Rommelgem, the junk place, so the Graf van Rommelgem, who 
was actually a cartoon character in Belgium by a very 
wonderful artist who did this sort of thing. I even looked 
like him. The Count of the Junk Place, that was my name. 
I would come into the bar, and we would immediately get 
into surrealism. We would talk about [Stfephane] Mallarm6, 
about Benjamin Peret or Tristan Tzara. We'd have arguments 
about surrealism, about where it's going and what it means, 
and really get into it. And I say, I would ask, "Would you 
ever be anything but a surrealist?" They said, "What else 
is there?" Then they would always have something for me, 
these artists. There was an artists' bar; it was called 
the Gallows. 

SMITH: This was in Gent? 

WAGNER: Yeah. It was called the Gallows. It was at one 
time the gallows hanging place for the castle of Gent, 
right on the square, and it turned into a coffeehouse, an 
artists' bar. They would always have something for me. 
They'd reach in their pockets, "Hey, Graf," and they'd hand 


me an object. They'd collect things for me. The children 
would--little kids, four and five years old, "Gordon, 
Gordon," and then they'd hand me something, a toy or 
something they didn't want anymore, they'd give it to me. 
I've never been treated anyplace in my life like I was 
treated in Belgium. Probably the fact I was from 
California, American, and they had expressed an interest in 
finding out about these things from me. 

SMITH: Let me ask you — We'll get back to the subject of 
surrealism in a little bit. In Sweden, England, Belgium, 
was there a high interest in what was happening in American 
art at the time? 

WAGNER: I didn't feel there was much interest at all in 
Belgium. In London there was a bit, but not much, because 
the British still love Romney and Reynolds and 
Gainsborough, you know, for their Victorian houses. 
There's very little interest in contemporary art in 

SMITH: What about Sweden? 

WAGNER: Oh, they love contemporary art. The Swedes are 
good artists themselves. All these people have such-- 
They have great artists, you know. When you have somebody 
like Walter [Hopps], who controls the world of the arts, he 
sees to it that [Claes] Oldenburg and all of these people 
are in the right places in all the museums. 


SMITH: So pop art was very popular? 

WAGNER: Yes, pop art in England. It wasn't popular at all 
in Belgium. Even abstract expressionism-- They had a very 
difficult time accepting the abstract expressionists of 
American artists. Because they had their own artists; they 
felt that [Willem] de Kooning was Dutch, Cornells [Van 
Beverloo, also known as Corneille] was Dutch, [Karel] Appel 
was Dutch. It was called the Cobra movement, and that was 
enough for them; they didn't need an extension from that. 
SMITH: Was there an interest in color-field painting? In 
the manifestations of perceptual art? 

WAGNER: Not too much, no. There were environments and 
installations by [Pol] Bury and [Vic] Gentille. They were 
sculptors, assemblage. 
SMITH: Dutch or Belgian? 

WAGNER: Belgian. All of them were-- Cornells, of course, 
was Belgian. Appel lived right on the Flemish border. 
They had a feeling for [Maurits] Escher, who was from 
Antwerp. Basically, they-- There weren't very many 
American artists showing in Belgium at any time. I was one 
of the few, because I went there personally and represented 
myself. But most American artists wouldn't even think 
about going to Belgium; they'd go to Paris, or they'd go to 
London. The last place they would go would be Belgium. 
"What's there," you know? It's still that way. They say. 


"What's in Belgium? Dull country, dull people," you 
know. It's not true. They're a very alive people, and 
very warm and friendly and giving. I don't think there was 
hardly a night in the whole time I was in Belgium that I 
didn't have a good meal in somebody's home, because when 
you had an exhibition, everybody wanted to invite you to 
their house for dinner. We had all this great, gourmet 
food that was presented to you. It was wonderful. And 
every Wednesday night I went to the prime minister's house. 
SMITH: The prime minister now? 

WAGNER: Well, he's not prime minister now, he was. E>e 
Scrijver, Auguste de Scrijver. He was the prime minister 
of Belgium. I used to go to his house every Wednesday 
night. His son, Leo, admired my work and myself. He was a 
real Proustian-type man. 
SMITH: What do you mean by that? 

WAGNER: Well, he lived in a Proustian world. He lived in 
this mansion; he lived way up in the corner all by 
himself. He had a couch where he could listen to Bach and 
Beethoven and Bart6k; he loved Bartok. All these objects 
in the room, and cabinets full of things like crocodile 
nutcrackers and ship models and little objects. His 
bathroom door was completely, solidly located with every 
print that he could possibly get on there, small prints he 
had collected. Twenty of the prints were James Ensors. He 


was a great fan of James Ensor, who was from Oostende. You 
see, another great artist from Belgium. 

SMITH: Now, you mentioned that there was a strong interest 
in California when you were there. What was the image of 
California that these people had? 

WAGNER: Well, actually I think the image — I talked to 
some people who had been there, and they didn't consider 
anything in California really attractive, except San 
Francisco, and they felt that was the jewel of the United 
States. As for the rest of it: it was too spread out, 
there was no transportation; they couldn't get around, 
there were no rails like in Europe, where you can go from 
one town to another, anywhere. It was very difficult for 
them to get about, except a few. The other thing that a 
lot of them asked, "Is Los Angeles in Disneyland?" They 
thought that Disneyland was bigger than Los Angeles, 
[laughter] They'd never been here, but they wanted to know 
about these things. They'd heard of Disneyland, and they 
wanted to see that. That was the most important thing, 
because they heard there was a lot of magic in Disneyland. 
Like they knew all about the pirates, and they knew all 
about the haunted house and all the illusions, and they 
wanted to see that. 

They didn't think too much of a lot of the young girls 
in California that came to visit in Belgium. They acted 


very silly, they said; they didn't seem to be mature 
people, you know. The European girls in Belgium are very 
beautiful; some of the most beautiful women I've ever seen 
live in Belgium. Because they have this Flemish face which 
is almost something out of a [Hans] Memling of that time. 
Pure and real; there's no fagades. So they asked about 
that, about "Are all women like the ones that come here or 
are there others?" Or, "Do they talk with a [speaks with 
heavy drawl] 'Well, I'll tell you now, it's like this,' 
like the Western accents, like movies? Are they like the 

Most of them watch American films because they can 
learn English from that. That's the way they find it, in 
their TV, to watch English-speaking films. That's the way 
they learn their language, a lot of them, and go to school. 
They're forced to study four languages in school. They 
have to study Dutch, French, English, and any other 
language of their choice, from Spanish to Russian to 
Chinese to Greek or whatever. And that starts when they're 
five years old, they're already studying four languages. 
They're wonderful. And so warm. So me, being an American, 
which there are not very many American artists coming 
there, I was sort of--I don't know what; you might call me 
some sort of a freak, coming to their country to have an 
exhibition. But Arthur Secunda had an exhibition in 


Belgium and did well. He loves Belgium. All of Arthur's 
friends and my friends, we're all together, we know each 
other. Beautiful people to deal with, because they want to 
help you all the time. They're so concerned about you, be 
sure that you're all right and find you your studio that 
you want to work in. It was really an experience, 
SMITH: Since the mid-seventies, a number of critics who 
have written about your work have compared it to the 
Belgian artists Delvaux, Magritte. There was obviously a 
great change in what you were doing in terms of the 
boxes. Do you feel that your work is Magritte-like? 
WAGNER: Well, I really admire Magritte. I think he was 
one of the great surrealists. I love his humor. The 
actual context of his work is basically his own house or 
windows that he looks through and objects juxtaposed within 
his house in a surreal manner to create a whole different 
ambiance. I don't think Magritte ever worked too much from 
dreams and therefore- - 

SMITH: Well, he said he wasn't interested in dreams. 
WAGNER: I do, so I think I probably parallel Magritte 
sometimes architecturally, arches and interiors, but what I 
say, I think, is a whole different approach to it than 

SMITH: Well, in terms of the general subject of surrealism 
and your placement within surrealism as a continuing art 


movement, generally, eroticism and sexuality are considered 
to be really prominent aspects of surrealist art. I'd like 
you to talk a little bit about the sexual, the erotic 
aspects of your art, how they manifest themselves. 
WAGNER: Actually, in Belgium and Holland there's a whole 
movement of erotic and sexual art by academic painters that 
really make it look like it's really happening right in 
front of your eyes. They're really great painters. 
Especially in Holland more than Belgium. But I've seen 
paintings ten, fifteen feet long and three feet high, you 
just can't believe what you're looking at. Really 
eroticism, pure pornography. 

SMITH: Well, I was thinking more about the Magritte 
painting where the dress is hanging on the hanger with the 
breasts coming out and the shoes with the toes coming out, 

or the [Alberto] Giacometti with the ball and bananalike 


WAGNER: Well, at one time-- 

SMITH: The more ambiguous and evocative kind of eroticism. 

WAGNER: At one time I did quite a few erotic pieces. That 

was back a ways, in the sixties. I mean deliberately 


SMITH What pieces were they? 

WAGNER: Oh, I went through a whole series of pieces 

related to eroticism that you-- I don't have them. 


SMITH: Yeah, but could you describe them, give me some of 

the titles? 

WAGNER: Oh, they were penises and breasts and lace. 

SMITH: Evocative penises and breasts, or explicit? 

WAGNER: Yeah, yeah. Lace and jewelry; very, very 


SMITH: But were these expliclt-- 

WAGNER: Boxes. 

SMITH: --or were they evocative? 

WAGNER: They were evocative. Sometimes they'd become a 

little more than evocative. 

SMITH: What were some of the — Can you remember some of 

the titles? 

WAGNER: Majestic Memories was about a dancer, a woman who 

was wound up in webs and nets with all of these erotic 

things happening, and perfume bottles and beads and glass 

and phalluses. It was from a-- And a boa hat. It's in a 

collection at the moment; it belongs to Ronald Loeb. The 

reason I call it Majestic Memories was because most of 

these things came from this woman who was a dancer and 

entertainer in the Majestic Theatre in downtown Los 


SMITH: These are actual things that belonged to this 


WAGNER: Yeah, a lot of her goods, and a lot of things. 


But I really twisted it around to make it quite sensual. 

SMITH: How big was this box? 

WAGNER: Oh, about [gestures] that large, eighteen inches 

by eighteen inches by four inches deep. It was a good 

piece. I had to repair it one time because his wife hit 

him over the head with it, [laughter] so we had to 

reconstruct it. His ex-wife, that is. But I did some with 

bottles, and things happening with them. I did things with 

different acts of sex going on. 

SMITH: Explicit or evocative? 

WAGNER: Expressing it, but it wasn't actually that, it was 

evocative. You knew it was there, but it wasn't. 

SMITH: Dream images again? 

WAGNER: No. This was at a time when I was not married to 

anyone. I think it was a lot of libido drive coming up 

that created it, because I was in a state of, sort of a 

demonic state of my love object [at the] time. I mention 

that in my book. Memories of the Future. I have a couple 

of drawings in there that are pretty erotic. 

SMITH: Which ones would you say? 

WAGNER: Well, one is the girl on the cross, and the other 

one is the one where she's sitting with your back to her in 

the vagina, you know? At that period it was love objects I 

was creating, because it was a sort of sublimation for 

being without sex. 


SMITH: There is sort of an equation of vagina, 
rollercoaster , death in that series. 
WAGNER: Exactly. That's what it was all about, 
basically. There were quite a few symbols like that 
throughout. And also, my boxes were of that same imagery 
at that time. William Wilson made a comment on it. What 
did he call them? Quite decadent, or something. I was 
having an exhibition of them at the Comara Gallery at that 
time, quite a few pieces. 

SMITH: There was the other comment he made about you spend 
too much time on sex, love and death. 

WAGNER: Well, he made that statement, yeah. What was it? 
No not-- Death, sex and religion; too much time on death, 
sex and religion. Well, these were so subconscious to me, 
these weren't dreams, because I hadn't started really 
working within the dream at that time. This was back 
before I really got into the dream, you know. They were 
only written dreams, but not manifesting dreams. 
SMITH: Is there a relationship between this erotic art and 
the peyote altar art that you were doing at the same time? 
WAGNER: No, that followed. But of course, that one is a 
rather sexual one in itself. That has sexual 
connotations: the man and the woman; the sun and the moon, 
moon being the woman and the sun--the mating of the two, 
where the sun fits into the crescent, or the man and the 


woman. Yeah, that's in that symbolism. 

SMITH: There's kind of a genital feeling of the-- 

WAGNER: Well, the legs coming down from that, you know. 

SMITH: What about in your work since the seventies, is 

there a sexual or erotic element to it? 

WAGNER: Well, I've avoided it completely now. I've turned 

it off, it doesn't exist within me. Any art relating to 

erotic art just doesn't exist. I've gone through it; it 

just doesn't happen anymore. Those things just happened. 

For some reason no more would I have that in any of my work 

that I know of. It just doesn't happen. Unless somebody 

wanted to read it into it, but certainly it's not intended 

to be in there by anything that I would have been 

responsible for. 

SMITH: Was that a conscious decision on your part not to 

include it, or just-- 

WAGNER: No, I just outgrew it when I became married to 

Virginia [Copeland Wagner] in '67. My sublimation was 

over. I didn't have to sublimate anymore. The whole 

different thing changed. When I was in Belgium and 

Holland, and I looked at these paintings in these 

galleries, as a matter of fact, I was-- 


FEBRUARY 28, 1987 

SMITH: You were saying when you went to Belgium and 

WAGNER: I looked at this dealer in London, the one I told 
you about. Jean-Pierre Lehman said I should go and see 
this gallery in Holland, in Amsterdam, because she would 
probably really love my work. I went to see her, and she 
said, "I'm not interested in your work at all." You know, 
Dutch are very gruff. "I'm not the slightest bit 
interested in your work. Where would Jean-Pierre Lehman 
get that idea from?" I looked in the gallery, and 
everything in the gallery was like a pornographic 
exhibition. I said, "When I look around, I realize that I 
wouldn't want to be in your gallery anyway because I'm not 
interested in this sort of art. I think it's decadent, and 
it's like a horror show. Thank you very much", and I 
left. And that sort of art, the more I looked at it the 
more I became really repelled by the stuff. It actually 
made me sick inside to see it. The cheapening of the 
beauty of love, taking away that wonderful magic of love 
for some cheap paintings and exploiting it like that was a 
little more than I could handle. So I think that was 
another reason that I subconsciously just moved away from 
even thinking about such things. 


SMITH: Well, is there in your art--if it doesn't reflect, 
say, the sublimation of eros, is there then reflected in it 
anything of the state of marriage, the domesticity, the 
communion of a man and woman in marriage? 
WAGNER: Not much. No. 

SMITH: I'm not necessarily talking physical, carnal, but 
the overall-- 

WAGNER: Well, probably what happens is that it's a sort of 
escape from everything. 
SMITH: Your art? 

WAGNER: My art. Everything. Completely. Anything that 
can be tied down to a way, it's an escape from it. This is 
hard for some people to understand, because they're looking 
for a message, an erotic message, a protest message, or 
some kind of time- full message. In the dream state and 
through the context of my work, I want to make people 
happy, give them more humor and joy in life. People who 
are looking for the other have a difficult time finding 
that because actually they probably do not have 
appreciation or humor for my work. My work goes beyond 
face value; it goes inside, and it's up to them to find it. 
SMITH: Well, another aspect of --an important part of 
surrealism is cruelty, sadism, a reflection of that. All 
of these are according to the classical surrealists, 
eroticism, sadism are what really inhabit the unconscious 


and what need to be liberated. Is there cruelty in your 

WAGNER: No. No more than Magritte shows cruelty; no more 
than Delvaux; no more than Max Ernst. 
SMITH: Well, there is some in Max Ernst. 
WAGNER: There was that part of surrealism, like Marat- 
Sade. [Antonin] Artaud and some of those people showed 
cruelty, but they were sort of the crazy people within the 
surrealist movement. Breton probably showed cruelty by the 
way he treated the artists within the movement by just 
throwing them out. But Breton really was a very sensitive 
man. I don't think he was actually cruel. I'm sure that 
people like--Yves Tanguy was not a cruel person. But 
surreal people like [Salvador] Dali, he showed cruelty and 
he showed these things, but I always figured that he did it 
to shock people through his paranoia, and stinking feet and 
all the things he got into, you know. I think he did it 
for sensation; he's a showman, where Magritte was never a 
showman. There is always going to be-- The Marquis de Sade 
was part of the surrealist movement with some artists, but 
not all. There was a breaking up-- You might say it would 
be cruel to stage performances with animals and things-- 
Actually, the eyeball that they cut open in-- 
SMITH: In Chien andalou. 
WAGNER: --was not a person's eye at all. 


SMITH: That was a donkey eye. 

WAGNER: Yeah, I know. I mean but not a live one. 
SMITH: Right. 

WAGNER: It wasn't a person's eye. Things like that showed 
cruelty. The Spanish side of the surrealist movement, 
like--what's his name? Oscar Domlnguez, who tried to 
destroy every church in Spain. He was out to get 
revolution, the communist time, the time of Trotsky. All 
this was going on. But Breton backed out of all that, he 
wasn't going to be any part of it. Eluard went on with it, 
and Gala Eluard, his wife, left him; she didn't want to be 
a Marxist, she went with Salvador Dali. But Eluard was a 
great poet. Although with all this revolution that was 
going on-- Breton only had one idea, he wanted people to 
be free. His idea was to shake up the bourgeois in France, 
to make them learn something about creating from 
themselves. When he found out what these Marxists wanted 
to do, he pulled out because he didn't want that kind of 
control. He wanted people to be free, not controlled. He 
threw Salvador Dali out of the surrealist movement because 
Salvador Dali said that all blacks should be slaves 
forever. He threw Magritte out of the surrealist movement 
because Georgette, his wife, in a caf6 in Paris was wearing 
a cross. He said, "Take off that cross." Magritte says, 
"Let's go," and he took off and went back to Brussels. He 


offended a lot of people, and that might be classified as 
cruelty. In that aspect, he wanted to be the pope of 
surrealism. He wanted to run the show, right? But there 
were a lot of sweet people in the surrealist movement, they 
were not all cruel. 

SMITH: But still, in many — There is cruelty in Max 
Ernst, there's cruelty in Tanguy. Not across the board, 
not always, but there are pieces. It's an integral part of 
the surrealist ideology: Shocking the bourgeois 
respectability by showing the cruelty that is inherent in 
ourselves, in our psyche, and therefore in the society. 
WAGNER: Yes, but if we go back four or five hundred years 
and you look at Bosch, you look at Brueghel, you look at 
the Flemish artists, you look at the Italians and some of 
the artists in the Sint Maarten Latem school and others in 
Belgium over periods of time, [Pieter] de Hooch, how much 
did they paint about cruelty, and they were not 
surrealists. Stretching people out with horses and 
dividing them, drawing and quartering people, saints and 
religious people. And how could anything be more cruel 
than the crucifixion of Christ? So painters of all-- Lots 
of painters show cruelty. 
SMITH: Right. 

WAGNER: But they're telling it like it is. 
SMITH: But in terms of your art, you are not interested in 



WAGNER: I'm interested in being aware of the fact that 
cruelty exits all around me every day. We have more 
cruelty probably right now than we've had in years in our 
society, with all of the beaten children and the things 
that are going on right now, the way the poor are being 
neglected and the street people. The lack of interest and 
concern. There's more now probably than we've had in years 
in a different way, but it's still cruelty. I am aware of 
the fact that it's there, but if I were to paint it, then 
I'm being in a protest state, I'm not being in the world of 
timelessness. I'm telling you something that's either 
happened or is happening. Like Magritte, he can think of a 
thousand ideas, I remember him saying, but only one of them 
is a good one, because it follows what he's doing. Because 
he doesn't want to jump around and sidetrack himself off of 
where his direction is, so he has to give those others 
up. Max Ernst was the opposite, he'd do anything, you 
know. He'd have one painting this way, and a drawing this 
way, and a collage this way. But he still maintained his 
whole. Magritte just painted; he didn't want to get 
sidetracked by protest, hate. He made a few paintings, 
like The Murder and The Room, things like that, but 
basically he was a timeless artist. 
SMITH: My understanding of surrealism is that an important 


part of it is liberation through releasing the 

unconsciousness. By releasing the unconsciousness, you 

challenge bourgeois respectability, bourgeois 

sentimentality, bourgeois conventionality. 

WAGNER: That is correct. 

SMITH: Is that part of your art? Are you interested in 

challenging the bourgeois conventionality and 

respectability of here, in this country at this time, or of 


WAGNER: No, not really. 

SMITH: Of getting whoever to look at their lives in that 


WAGNER: Not really. I was at one time. 

SMITH: Which time? 

WAGNER: When I was young, I used to worry about those 

things, but not anymore. I don't care what anybody thinks 

about them now. They can love them or they can hate them, 

it makes no difference to me. I have no-- I disconnect 

myself with it, detach myself from tomorrow and from 

yesterday, you know. Now is what is important. I realize 

the limitations of our society. I realize that most people 

aren't even bourgeois, they're just nothing. We've lost 

our bourgeois in America; we don't have a bourgeois here 

anymore, we've got the yuppies, and this cult and that 

cult, and this race of people and that race of people. Our 


country is not all Americans, where France was all French 
and where Belgium was all Belgians. Here we have such a 
melting pot of people. I could work here for the next 
hundred years, and I bet you that 95 percent of the people 
in the United States would never see it or see any other 
art. It just keeps going on, and they probably would never 
know about it, ever. Because they're-- It's not football, 
it's not baseball, it's not athletics, it's not boating, 
it's not surfing, it's not Chinese, it's not Japanese, it's 
not Mexican. And there's only a handful of us American 
artists, California American artists, left. Where's our 
audience? A handful of people. So what bourgeois? There 
isn't anymore bourgeois. Everybody is battling against 
being bourgeois in California. They've got to be yuppies, 
or they've got to be something. There's no time for the 
bourgeois. They're dead or on their last leg of- -maybe in 
their eighties, maybe in rest homes or someplace. Very few 
of them left. 

SMITH: You mean traditional bourgeois? 
WAGNER: Yeah. 

SMITH: There's still stockbrokers and real estate agents, 
and all that kind of thing. 

WAGNER: Oh, yeah. They're beyond the bourgeois, I 
think. Because half of them have already been-- I bet 
half of the stockbrokers and half of the real estate people 


have been through the hippie movement, and they lived in 

all of this ferment. They've probably been on all sorts of 

acid trips, and they've changed into different 

personalities because the fad changed. That's the problem 

here with our society here, the fads. So the bourgeois 

doesn't exist. It never existed in California; we never 

had one in the beginning, I don't believe. Not in the 

sense of the bourgeois, who were closed-minded burghers. 

We never had burghers. 

SMITH: Well, we had Warren Dorn saying that C6zanne was a 

secret communist plot. 

WAGNER: Yeah. 

SMITH: Back in the fifties. 

WAGNER: Well, true. You mean in the time of McCarthy. 

SMITH: The McCarthy period, when modern, contemporary- - 

WAGNER: Well, that was Hollywood they were after, right? 

The film directors and the producers. 

SMITH: Right, but they also said contemporary art, 

abstract expressionism was communism. 

WAGNER: Well, of course, maps of strategic areas that the 

Russians wanted for blowing up the United States. That was 

insanity, not bourgeois. That was coming from Councilman 

Harold Harby's office. He was the one. He was the one who 

was accusing them. He was accusing Bernard Rosenthal's 

sculpture on the police building with the faces that are 


faceless of being communist because they didn't have 
faces. He wanted the sculpture to be all people; nobody 
especially, just all people. He wanted that torn down 
because that was really a communist piece. During the WPA 
[Works Progress Administration] times a lot of the old 
communist artists were working on the murals here in the 
museum, down in the old museum restaurant. [Edward] 
Biberman. All around the different WPA projects. They 
were all fighting at that time for-- "We need money, us 
artists." Well, most of them made more money during the 
Depression than they made in years. [laughter] They 
hadn't been paid before. 

SMITH: There's another aspect of surrealism that I want to 
see how you relate to, which is the question of 
spontaneity, the automatic painting, short-circuiting 
consciousness. How does spontaneity and non-consciousness 
fit into your work methods? 

WAGNER: Well, in my earlier works I used lots of 
spontaneity in my assemblages, you know, the object related 
to some other object with nothing really in mind, just 
building it up, purely coming from spontaneity, right out 
of nowhere, you know. That still is a very important thing 
in my work, spontaneity. It looks like it's frozen. Like 
this piece here is totally spontaneous, yet it looks 
frozen. But everything that went in there came off of the 


walls, or in boxes, or in junk, or that I found around, 
and it all came together into a spontaneous composition 
because-- The only concept in that whole piece here-- 
SMITH: This is a work in progress that you're doing, now. 
WAGNER: This was a ship. I wanted it to go disappear 
through the edge of the painting and come out down out of a 
fireplace. So what was the fireplace in the painting, what 
environment was I going to put that in? I held the concept 
of the ship in the painting and the ship in the fireplace; 
the rest was a spontaneous experience of the piano and the 
table and the cards and the saxophone. When I saw the 
piano and the saxophone, then I got thinking about The 
Music Room and related to it. Cards and haphazard beer 
cans and things, like a man who lived in this room. I've 
known many who live in a single room where things are in a 
bit of disarray. But they have the things they like around 
them: cards or chess games or beer cans they don't quite 
clean up, pianos maybe, musical instruments lying around. 
So it's a room of a man who's obviously a bachelor, but 
that comes spontaneously. Everything has to come through 
spontaneity, because it's automatic. It is. It's like 
automatic writing; it's like automatic painting. You let 
it flow from in you out. 

SMITH: What is the role of revision in your work? Polish, 
revision, redoing? 


WAGNER: Well, it's only, to me, editing. 
SMITH: Editing, right. 

WAGNER: Editing your chaos. What you can do is you can 
take your chaos and put it there in an automatic way, 
spontaneous, and then you can notice the way it's thrown 
down or the way it appears. There's some elements or forms 
or lines or shapes or objects that get in the way of the 
other, so it's only a matter of moving them or removing 
them. You can say the whole message many times with less 
than a whole lot of things. Less is more. So that's 
reorganizing the chaos and editing your automatic concept, 
painting. It's removing a whole area that's too busy, and 
when that area is removed, there's something over here 
that's too strong, so you take that out. So the form 
that's left becomes stronger rather than surrounded by a 
lot of redundant things. So it's removing things of the 
chaos or the automatic painting, automatic writing. You 
automatically write something and you leave it, wham. 
You'll go back and read it, maybe, and that's a redundant 
line, you throw it out, right? Same thing. 
SMITH: Have you ever been in psychoanalysis? 
WAGNER: No, never in my life. I've never been in their 
office. I have no reason to want to go, or any idea of 
SMITH: Psychoanalytic theory, again, was a big part of 


surrealism. Have you been interested in it just from a 
literary point of view, from a theoretical point of view? 
WAGNER: Well, I think [Sigmund] Freud did more to destroy 
our culture than probably any psychologist that's ever been 
around. Through sexual libido drives, and placing that 
above all things, and the dream and the automatic writing 
and the subconscious through cocaine and opium that he 
used. I've known-- My wife is the victim of a Freudian 
psychologist, and her husband was, too. Broke up their 

SMITH: Her first husband? 

WAGNER: Um-hmm. It's not all the way it should be. 
Although Freud at that time was very big with the 
surrealists, with Breton, because he was doing these 
things. He was talking about automatic writing and 
automatic painting and automatic creativity. If [Carl] 
Jung would have been around at that time-- Jung was still 
not there; he was a student of Freud. If Jung would have 
been around at that time, I'm sure that the surrealists 
would have picked up on Jung a lot faster. Because Jung 
had a lot more to say about the whole, the harmony, the 
universal harmony, and the quaternity, and all the symbols 
of man through dream and vision, and the mandalas, and the 
working of the human mind from the alchemists. He covered 
so much that Freud didn't bother with, you know. Freud 


meant well, but Jung went way beyond that, he went up into 
the unconscious in a different method. So I wouldn't want 
to be analyzed by-- I know a lot of Jungians, and my work 
has always been appealing to Jungians. I only have met a 
couple of Freudian psychologists, and they seem very 
confused to me about my art. They were the ones-- One of 
them said one time, actually. Just like William Wilson, he 
says, "You're only interested in death, sex, and 
religion." And that was from a Freudian psychologist. But 
a Jungian psychologist says, "How can you possibly have a 
full life and understand anything if you have no interest 
in sex, death and religion, " which is the opposite of 
Freud . 

SMITH: Something else I wanted to discuss is the 
relationship of your interest in surrealism to the piers, 
Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, POP [Pacific Ocean Park] . 
You mentioned once that the pier, the carnival, is a form 
of people's surrealism. Could you go into that more? What 
did you mean by that? What's people's surrealism? 
WAGNER: You mean like amusement piers? Things of that 

SMITH: Yeah. Well, carnival in general, of which the 
amusement piers are a particularly Anglo-Saxon form. 
WAGNER: Well, as far as the carnivals and the piers and 
the palaces of gaiety, the distances of the sea and the 


skies, and the structures, and the loneliness, and the 

beach, and the feeling of the mist, that's what I'm 

interested in. I don't care about the people on the pier; 

they mean nothing to me at all, because they're not 

surreal, it's the environment that's surreal. Like the 

cities that almost float out of the sea, sometimes they're 

almost projected in the sky at different times, how you can 

see them from distances. 

SMITH: Firaskew. 

WAGNER: But not too close. There ' d be a dreamlike quality 

to them. They don't exist anymore. There isn't any. They 

have been destroyed. But the people who worked in the 

carnival are just people. The ones that went there were 

just people. A lot of people that I wouldn't have any 

desire to ever know or care about. 

SMITH: But in an interview that you gave with this 

newspaper in Eugene, Oregon, you do refer to the piers and 

carnival as a form of people's surrealism, you use that 


WAGNER: Well, the carnival and the penny arcade was a 

stimulation to me. And the pier. But as illusion, as 

chance . 

SMITH: You went on to say that surrealism was the common 

man's art, it wasn't an elite form of art. 

WAGNER: Absolutely. It's the common man's art. It's the 


only art that is the common man's art, because a very 
unschooled person can make a dream, draw dreams, he doesn't 
have to go to an academy, to a certain type or school of 
art. And primitivism, and folk art, all those things sort 
of tied together, like African art, Hopi art, the kachinas 
and masks. All these things are art of man, and to me they 
all relate to the surrealist movement. They're made by 
man; they're not made for art. Like the African art and 
the American Indians, they're made for religions purposes, 
for symbols of power and energy. They're made by a man 
specially, or a man makes something very strange and weird 
for his child. An old man makes buildings and things. But 
they can be very surreal. It's the art of the people. And 
when I'm talking about the decoration of the penny arcades 
and the piers and whatnot, they're made--they were 
constructed with very surreal colors and illusions within 
them. But the people weren't. What I'm getting at, the 
people were not that were there, but the environment was. 
SMITH: Could you define surreal? What do you mean by 
surreal? What does the word surreal mean? 

WAGNER: Actually, surrealism was coined up by [Guillaume] 
Apollinaire as a word. It's actually manifesting your work 
from the unconscious. That's what it amounts to. If I 
wanted to tell you the elements of what surrealism actually 
means to me as a person, and to most people, it has about 


five or six elements that make something surreal. 

SMITH: Okay. 

WAGNER: One is always, usually, the juxtaposition of 

objects not related to one another, common and uncommon 

objects in a different context so they wouldn't actually 

ever be together. Humor, chance, a riddle, a rebus. A 

quality, and many times atmosphere, of distances in 

nature. All of these things. And probably the one that is 

the most important of all, I'm almost forgetting, is 

irrationality. It must be irrational to the logical mind. 

SMITH: We talked about Henry Miller before, his important 

influence on you. How do you, at this point in your life, 

relate surrealism to Henry Miller? Do you see a connection 


WAGNER: Well, Henry Miller's dead. Henry Miller did 

watercolors, and Henry Miller wrote wonderful books that I 

loved. I can't actually say there's much parallel between 

what Henry Miller was doing and myself in any way except 

his philosophy, which I still think is a very important 


SMITH: Which is? 

WAGNER: What he wrote is certainly enough to keep me going 

for a lifetime as far as my attitude toward society. 

SMITH: Which is? 

WAGNER: He wrote a letter once to Emil Schnelling and 


said, "Let them have their automobiles --their tin buggies, 
and let them have their boob tubes, and let them have all 
these things. What you have to do, Emil, is to sit down, 
stop making watercolors, and start painting, because you're 
temporizing. Get rid of the material world." I have no 
use for the material world to this day. I'm not interested 
in new cars, or any of this. I'm still detached from that 
aspect of it, new things. I don't own any new things. I 
never bought a piece of furniture in my life, ever. I can 
never remember buying a new piece of furniture, a shiny 
object, because I don't like shiny, glittering things. 
SMITH: Well, let's get back to your boxes and your work in 
the seventies and eighties. I think at this point we ought 
to perhaps talk about dream narratives, what those are in 
your scheme of things. 

WAGNER: Well, that would be starting, probably, when? 
'Seventy- four? ' Seventy- five? How I really got into the 
dream narrative was Virginia. She told me that I should 
leave the found-object side after coming back from Belgium 
and start working with my dreams, drawing them and writing 
them and developing whatever came out of those. My first 
narrative dreams were railroad dreams. I used to have a 
dream about maybe once every month about these wonderful 
trains that were part horse and part locomotive, or they 
were prancing steeds, or they were sulky pacers, and they 


were rocker-arm trains. They ran on different tracks and 
time, and they were so fast that you could hardly see them 
go. They just, [whistles] shoo, shoo. I called them the 
squiggle trains in the corners of my eyes. The first thing 
I did was try to tie them down into some kind of-- What do 
they look like actually if I take them out of my dream? 
Can I manifest these into trains with horse and locomotives 
with prancing steeds? So I pretty much could. I developed 
them, and I had them carrying clouds, trains with clouds 
all inside. I had them coming out of things, out of walls, 
off the tops of mantelpieces and fireplaces. They were big 
boxes. The one that is in New Mexico--it's owned by Meg 
Heydt--was probably the first one that came off. It was a 
mantelpiece with these horse-locomotive trains traveling 
across the mantel with a mirror, and down below was a 
rocker-arm train coming out of the fireplace. It was 
called The Trains in the Comers of My Eye. It was the 
first actual piece, probably, that I could manifest from a 
dream into an actual box. That was the starting point. 
Then I took fragments of all of these dreams and railroad 
stations and whatnot, and they started to come out. The 
more I started to find these elements within myself of 
these buildings and archways, the more I could get inside 
of it. Then labyrinths started appearing. As the 
labyrinths started appearing, things started to relate to 


the labyrinths. I'd make the labyrinths and I'd go into 

infinity places with these things. I just kept letting it 

grow. All my dreams that were direct dreams from writing 

it down in the morning, immediately after my-- Usually, I 

had my best dreams in that twilight sleep, in the last 

three or four minutes. I had wonderful dreams in the 

Silver Lake district. Echo Park. It was something about 

the place that fed me more dreams than I've ever had 

anyplace. Maybe the fact that I've manifested so many 

dreams, maybe I'm running out of imagery. I don't know. 

That was really the turning point, the drawing of the 

dreams. Memories of the Future, getting into that sort of 


SMITH: Had you written down your dreams previously to 


WAGNER: No. No, I hadn't. 

SMITH: You had done in the sixties the assemblages of the 

railroad imagery. Not trains, but the railroad imagery. 

WAGNER : Parts and components . 

SMITH: Did those come out of dreams? 

WAGNER: No. No, they didn't. They came right out of the 

dump into a spontaneous thing. Whatever it was related. 

No, they did not come from any dream. They were just for 

real. What's happened. There were no narratives connected 

with those as far as-- It was just the overall thing that 


did it. 

SMITH: Were you remembering your dreams at that time? 

Were railroads part of your dreams at that time? 

WAGNER: No, my dreams at that time were basically death 

dreams, the fear of death, funerals, and all of that sort 

of thing. But I didn't do anything with them in that 

way. I've made boxes about them, but I wasn't aware of the 

fact-- They were just there, these death dreams. Scared 

me to death, a lot of nightmares. I had those right up to 

the time that I was married to Virginia. She was the one 

that pulled me out of that. And I wrote it, the death 

dreams . 

SMITH: You wrote those down. 

WAGNER: Yeah, during that time. As far as working on the 

boxes, so many of them are fragments of my night 

journeys. Maybe just of one corner of a room or something, 

and whatever relates to that fragment goes into the 


SMITH: Do the ships come from your dreams? 

WAGNER: Oh, yeah. Yes, I've had quite a few ship 

dreams. In fact, I had one just last night that was a 

wonderful ship dream. It wasn't on the ocean, it was in 

San Francisco. It started on Powell Street and followed 

the cable car right up to the top of-- 

SMITH: Nob Hill. 


WAGNER: Jones [Street] over to Hyde [Street], and we went 
down the other side. But the buildings all moved and 
rocked and leaned while we were in this huge ship with my 
friend, Tom Fresh, who was the pilot of the ship. He was 
telling me about all of his girlfriends, and do I remember 
this girlfriend and that one. And he was piloting-- It was 
like the Love Boat, like Viking Line, like the Star Daricer, 
or one of those big ships. And here we were going down the 
hills of San Francisco. We made two or three corners; when 
we made the corner, we almost wiped out a while side of a 
building. [Laughter] That was last night's dream. That 
might be an interesting thing to manifest, you know? 
SMITH: Yeah. 

WAGNER: Some day. That was direct. As for other dreams, 
I had a wonderful dream — 


MARCH 7, 1987 

SMITH: When we left off last week, we had been talking 

about surrealism and your first stay in Belgium. You 

stayed in Belgium the first time about four months, five 


WAGNER: The first time, yeah, about that long, four 

months. Then I went to Amsterdam; came back to Belgium. 

SMITH: Did Virginia [Copeland Wagner] join you there? Did 

the two of you live there for awhile? 

WAGNER: I'm trying to remember where we were at that 

moment in Belgium, what had happened. Had I had an 

exhibition in Beligum yet? 

SMITH: Yes. 

WAGNER: At the [Galerij] Kaleidoscoop and the [Gal6rie] 

L'Angle-Aigu in Brussels and [Galerij] Te Zwarte Panter [in 

Antwerp] . Virginia was there. She was away for awhile, 

and then she came and joined me. I was there for about two 

months, and then she joined me in April. 

SMITH: You returned back to Los Angeles. When you 

returned back to Los Angeles, did you continue making the 

constructed boxes? 

WAGNER: Oh, yes. I really got into it a lot more when I 

got back from Belgium. I started making boxes more, 

fabricating the objects within them instead of using found 


objects, because I was very much interested in getting into 
a more surreal context than just the objects themselves. 
My first shows in Europe, in Belgium, were with the object 
related to the box. I started fabricating-- This would 
be-- What year are we talking about? 
SMITH: 'Seventy- three, '74, I guess. 

WAGNER: 'Seventy- four. Yeah, that's when I did the series 
of things related to kings and queens and palaces, using 
very rational symbolism and very irrational situations 
within the boxes, using formats of chessboards and things 
that were rational and logical. 

SMITH: Well, could you explain what you mean by 

WAGNER: Well, irrationality to me is when-- Actually, 
irrationality comes from the inside and doesn't make much 
sense to most people. It's not something that is all 
logically planned out, rationally planned out. It sort of 
comes off of the top of your head and has a lot of nonsense 
and riddles and puns and things of that nature within it. 
Where the actual box in its environment, like castle walls 
or moats or doorways or windows, all of these things are 
pretty much the structure of buildings, normal. But what 
went on within them, the actions of the trains crossing 
fireplaces and ships coming through doorways, kings and 
queens and balloons about to fall down if you took the 


sword blade out from under them where they were balanced 
maybe on an egg in space, those kinds of things are not 
exactly what you call real or logical. 

SMITH: You also began your playing card series, right, at 
this time? 

WAGNER: That was later. My first actual group of boxes 
that I'd completed was in '74 when I had my exhibition at 
Silvan Simone Gallery in about '75. That was the first 
time that [William] Wilson was kind to me in a long time. 
He said, "Well, Wagner's onto something new," and he was 
quite happy with that series that I was into. It was a 
very positive statement, I was not concentrating on death, 
sex and religion, but more into the Alice-in-Wonderland 
world of miniature narratives in the surreal context in the 
box. So they were sort of minidramas and microcomedies and 
mental landscapes. That series was very well received at 
the Silvan Simone Gallery. Sold out the show, except for 
one piece that I didn't want to sell. 

SMITH: I think the next thing I want to discuss is your 
leaving Echo Park and going up to San Francisco. 
WAGNER: After nineteen years of living in my studio in 
Echo Park, my house, it was a blow, believe me, to pick up 
my whole world, put it into a public storage and walk away 
with nothing except a Volkswagen and a suitcase and decide 
to-- We had to do something, but didn't know what. They 


sold the house that we were renting. There was nothing we 
could do, so we moved out and joined a friend of ours in 
Berkeley for about a month until we found another friend of 
ours who lived in San Francisco who was going away for 
three months. So we were able to stay in his house on Bush 
[Street] and Fillmore [Street], That's when I had my 
exhibition at the Vorpal [Gallery] , And seeing that I 
lived in infinity, so to speak, with a "00000" zip code, 
that's what I called the exhibition. Halfway to Infinity. 
That's where I built that very large environment in the 
upstairs gallery that hadn't even been a gallery, it was 
just raw space. The Vorpal Gallery gave me that space up 
on the roof, up on the top loft, to set up this piece and 
have a show of my boxes. Well, he invested so much money 
in that, because he restored the whole gallery for me, tore 
down everything that was in the loft and rebuilt it, 
refinished the walls. So it was a brand new gallery by the 
time the opening came. He wanted to do it, but he didn't 
think he was going to be doing it that quickly. It was a 
good thing. It was a nice to have it in San Francisco, 
that same performance with the big box and the mirrors and 
the actors. 

SMITH: That you had first developed in Oregon? 
WAGNER: Right. The show went well, also, with it. Boxes 
all around it, about fifty boxes, as a matter of fact. It 


was a huge space, something like 50 by 120 feet. You can 
get a lot of art in it, and it still didn't look crowded. 
SMITH: Then you moved out to Sebastopol? 
WAGNER: Yeah. This friend of ours, he's an assemblage 
artist; I've known him for years, another West Coast 
assemblage artist. Raymond Earnhardt, and his wife. Gen. 
They were going to Spain for three months, so they said, 
"How would you like to come stay in our house? You can use 
my studio for three months while we're in Spain." 

"Well, it sounds like a great idea. I've never been 
to Sebastopol . " 

When we got there, it was a paradise. I've never 
lived in a place quite so beautiful, with this huge studio 
that Raymond just cleared out of a whole big section. So I 
had plenty of room to work and check out all of Northern 
California. And it's so beautiful around there. He had 
about seven acres and a few apple trees and other 
gardens. So we got out in nature, and we could work in the 
garden and we could work in the studio. 

SMITH: What kind of boxes were you doing in San Francisco 
and Sebastopol? 

WAGNER: Exactly what I had been doing, the same sort of 
boxes: making things inside, fabricating the objects, and 
building, still, surreal boxes, until I got interested-- In 
Sebastopol a thought came to me, I would love to do a 


series of playing cards. I would like to do the whole deck 
of cards, but I felt that fifty-two boxes might be a little 
bit wearing, so I divided up the cards. My first suit of 
cards were acrylics, small acrylic paintings about 8-^/2 by 
11 [inches] on the "Suit of Circles." I developed that 
while I was in Sebastopol. I did one suit of the cards in 
circles. Then I worked on boxes at the same time, so I did 
about ten boxes and thirteen acrylics in Sebastopol. 
SMITH: One of the influences, maybe influence is the wrong 
word, but in your conversation, you mentioned that you have 
been deeply impressed by Joseph Cornell. When did you 
really become aware of Cornell's work? 

WAGNER: I think my earliest time that I'd really looked at 
Cornell was about 1947 in the Copley Gallery in Beverly 
Hills. It was a surrealist gallery, and it was managed by 
Bill [William] Copley and Doris Copley. They handled 
nothing but surrealist artists, from Max Ernst to Man Ray 
to [Rene] Magritte to Cornell to Dorothea Tanning Ernst and 
so many of the surrealists. At that time is when I first 
looked at the first Cornell boxes. And they were very 
reasonable; I think I could have picked one up for about 
twenty-five dollars at the time. 

SMITH: But an intense interest in Cornell didn't develop 
until much later? 
WAGNER: No, as a matter of fact, I knew Cornell was there. 


but he never really stimulated me in his way. Cornell was 
a man that I started to really read about in the 

SMITH: After he had died, yeah. 

WAGNER: --when the books really came out on Cornell. Dore 
Ashton and some of these different writers put out 
wonderful books on him. I realized then that Cornell and I 
had a lot in common in many ways. We were both living in 
another world, not a world of this time, but of other 
times, other places, and partially there isn't any other 
place, you're just living there, if not identifiable to it. 
Cornell was basically interested in dancers, ballet, 
ballerinas, and he was interested in star charts. He was a 
Christian Scientist. He loved old memorabilia. He loved 
sort of decadence. He loved anything French. He was a 
great admirer of [St6phane] Mallarm6, [Andr6] Breton and 
all the French poets, and he was very involved in all 
that. He used lots of French in his boxes: the words and 
the hotels and the places and collecting different objects 
and collage in his boxes from the French. Although he'd 
never been to France. He'd never been out of Flushing [New 
York] except I think to go to Manhattan to take some boxes 
in a paper sack to the Janus Gallery and to collect objects 
maybe in junkstores that he could find. He loved all of the 
ballerinas, and he did things for Dance magazine, covers 


and whatnot. Most of his work was actually constructed for 
his brother, Robert, who was in a wheelchair. He used to 
run up and down his three-story house at 3708 Utopia 
Parkway from the cellar to the top, up to the attic. He 
had things going at all these levels. He was a recluse, 
actually. He stayed home except when he went to the 
Christian Science church, quite regularly; I think it was 
daily. I loved the way they described his head as if he 
was a chambered nautilus with sort of-- His whole mind went 
out to infinity. Cornell's work is like mine in one way: 
women love our works. Women are the ones who collect our 
works, not men. It's very interesting that women love 
boxes. It was the same with Cornell. At one point Octavio 
Paz and Max Ernst and their wives, and somebody else showed 
up with them, and-- Cornell took the wives upstairs to see 
his boxes and let Octavio Paz and Max Ernst talking 
downstairs because he knew they wouldn't be interested in 
his work at all. So he kept it sort of for women. 

He set up his whole house one time as a party for Zizi 
Jean-Mere, the ballet dancer from the French Roland Petit 
company at the time. He loved her, but he never met her, 
so he prepared his house with all boxes and decorations to 
give her a party. She came to the party, but he 
disappeared; he never met her. He was that type of person, 
too shy. 


He was telling us about what he really loved about 
dance and about shooting-gallery birds and about soap- 
bubble kits and rings and all of this astrology and 
mythology and the things that he was into. They were sort 
of alchemical almost, magic, and his sand fountains, and 
all these different wonderful collages he made with almost 
alchemical symbols. Although inside of the whole thing, 
there was usually somebody that he admired. He took 
Magritte's postcard, I remember, and rearranged it and 
altered it, the one called Time Transfixed, with the train 
coming out. He loved Magritte's wife. Georgette; although 
he'd never met her, he loved her. She was a beautiful 
person, and he loved the image of the person. I don't 
think he actually could really-- He never really wanted to 
know the person, although he did in many cases, with some 
of the poets. But he had trunks full of old poetry by some 
remote poets and dossiers in his garage just solid with 
butterflies and objects and balloons and circles and rings 
and star charts. When he died, I was in Sweden having my 
opening at the Konstsalongen Kavalletin, and they told me 
that Cornell had just died. It was '71, I think. I was 
very disappointed about that because I had never had a 
chance to meet Cornell. I had always wanted to, but I 
never got around to it. We're going back now to when I was 
still in Echo Park. When I was having my show in New York 


and staying in Jamaica with my friend who was a painter. 
Vitas Sakalofski, I said, "Vitas, someplace around here-- 
You must live close to Flushing." 

He said, "Oh yeah, it's only about ten blocks away." 

I said, "Do you know where Utopia Parkway is?" 

He said, "Of course." 

"Well, I'm going to go to see Cornell's house." 

"Where does he live there?" 


"Oh, let's go tomorrow. We'll go in the afternoon." 

We got in his old bus and took off for the Utopia 
Parkway. He lived in a community that was like Europe, 
Dutch houses and wonderful houses. I felt like I was in 
Belgium or someplace. It didn't seem like anyplace else in 
Europe. So I could see where he could get all this energy 
through this kind of architecture. We walked-- There was 
somebody in the garage with a car, and we walked over to 
the man next door. He says, "You looking for somebody?" 

And I said, "Yeah. I was admiring the house here of 
Joseph Cornell." 

"Oh, yeah? You like the guy?" 

And I said, "Yes, I found him to be quite a nice 
artist." I said, "Did you know him?" 

"My wife knows him." 

I said, "Do you own anything of his?" 


"Oh, yeah, a few things." 

I said, "They're worth a lot of money now, you 
know . " 

He said, "You mean to tell me people pay money for the 
crap he did?" 

Finally, the wife came out. She said, "I've known 
Joseph ever since I was four years old, and my son used to 
work with Joseph and help him with his boxes to treat the 
outsides. I'll show you something." She brought this box 
out and a collage and two or three other things. She said, 
"The last we saw of Joseph was at Christmas Eve. That was 
his birthday, and every year he loved to celebrate 
Christmas Eve on his birthday. We invited him to come over 
to our house for a big party for him and for everybody, 
and he phoned up at about ten minutes before the party 
started and he says, 'I don't really want to come over. 
There'll be too many people there, and I don't want to talk 
to people. ' " So he never showed up for the party, and he 
died right after that. 

So Joseph, his philosophy is parallel to mine, but 
with a different message. We both have that same inner 
feeling about poetry and threads of our life parallel each 
other. His father was a Dutchman like mine; he comes from 
a Dutch family. I would like to have actually met him. 
SMITH: Recently there's been some discussion in the art 


critical circles about the importance of the grid in 

twentieth-century art, and Cornell's name of course comes 

up frequently as an artist who has imposed a grid framework 

upon what he was doing, similar, in a sense, to [Piet] 

Mondrian or any number of artists, actually. Is the grid 

framework important in your work, would you say? 

WAGNER: Well, if you're actually squaring things off like 

this one or that one with the spiderweb for a grid instead 

of this [rectangular] grid. 

SMITH: What's the name of that piece there? 

WAGNER: That is called The Staircase, the suitcase with 

the stairs coming out of it with a grid. For awhile there, 

for about, oh, several years ago, I used to adapt the grid 

a lot to my work. It was a way of killing the space that 

you were afraid was too dull. It did liven up a 

distance. This one has a grid. No, this one doesn't have 

a grid. No, I guess I don't have any with grids at 

present. Except this one is an example. 

SMITH: With the suitcase. And what's the name of the 


WAGNER: But I've used the spiderweb as a grid. 

SMITH: Right. 

WAGNER: Rather than the actual 90-degree grid. 

SMITH: Your use of windows and portals and that, are they 

also a form of grid for you? 


WAGNER: Yeah, right, they're setting up a negative 

space. The grid has a tendency to strengthen many works 

that would lose itself if it was just blank. A grid pulls 

things forward so that everything behind it goes back. 

It's like looking through jail bars. 

SMITH: It's a form of control of the space, then. I 

wanted to move on to the subject of you and Virginia 

becoming involved with Catholicism, That began when you 


WAGNER: In Sebastopol . 

SMITH: In Sebastopol? 

WAGNER: Yeah, that's where I was at that moment. I was 

working in my studio when Virginia came home one afternoon, 

and she said, "I've just met a wonderful Jesuit priest who 

agreed to trade Alexander [technique] lessons." And he 

said, "What could I do for you?" And she said, "Well, I'd 

like to learn something about the Catholic church and about 

religion, on that matter." 

SMITH: What were your religious leanings at that time? 

WAGNER: At that time we were pretty much into the Oriental 

philosophies, into the Taoist. That was our favorite of 

all that we'd tried. We'd gone through Hinduism and 

Buddhism, and we found that Taoism seemed to be the one we 

loved the most, because it had the most balance and was 

closer to what we knew. Because living with the Indians, 


that was more or less their philosophy; it was almost a 
Lao-tze philosophy, all their myth and their 
quaternities. The Jungian way. It all tied together. 
SMITH: So what was your reaction to Virginia's interest in 
trading lessons for-- 

WAGNER: I was pretty unhappy with the whole situation. I 
said, "I'll tell you: you can do whatever you want with it, 
but don't count me in on joining up with any church. I 
don't want any part of it." I'd been through it in my life 
with my first wife and my kids, and I didn't like the way 
the church was operating. I didn't like the parish life or 
the community or anything about it at that time. I used to 
have to go as a duty, being married to my first wife, who 
didn't go, I had to go to take my children. My first wife 
was a Catholic, We were married in the Catholic church in 
the Carmel mission, but she never really wanted to go to 
church. She was turned off by the church from childhood, 
and so that made it very difficult for me because I would 
have to take my daughters. I thought that I was a 
Catholic, or had been; when I went in, they gave me 
communion. It was so long ago, I couldn't remember, but I 
knew I didn't want it. I battled it with Virginia, all 
kinds of pros and cons, about why would you want to do this 

She said, "I'm going to go and find out more." 


And I said, "You go right ahead, but don't count me in 
on any of it. " 

SMITH: So she began to study Catholicism. What led you to 
decide to investigate it for yourself? 

WAGNER: Well, I was invited to mass at Saint Ignatius [de 
Loyola] Church at USF [University of San Francisco] by the 
Jesuit who was talking with Virginia, Father Swain. 
SMITH: What's his first name? 

WAGNER: Father Arthur Swain. After the mass we would have 
lunch. This we did, and I remember him saying to me--the 
first thing he said to me when he met me-- "What's a nice 
guy like you hanging around a place like this for?" So we 
had lunch. He was very brilliant, good sense of humor, 
laughed all the time; I enjoyed it. Then we went across 
the street to the Carmelite monastery where the cloister 
is, the [Monastery of] Cristo Rey is the name of it, where 
there's about twenty-one Carmelite nuns of the order 
established by Saint Teresa of Avila. We talked with them. 
Father Swain was their confessor, so he introduced us to 
the reverend mother and her assistant, and they were just 
charming women. They were from Mexico; they had to get out 
of Mexico at the time of the revolution. They came to 
America, and they'd been in the Cristo Rey ever since. 
SMITH: They were quite elderly, then, at this time. 
WAGNER: Oh, yeah. The reverend mother, she must be about 


seventy-eight, she looks about thirty right now. Not a 
line on her face; she looks like a young girl. Incredible 
person, wonderful energy. So we talked to them for 
awhile. They were just-- I was really impressed by these 
women, but I couldn't understand how they could live all 
their lives within this enclosure with never knowing 
anything about what was going on in the outside world, 
never. They know nothing about anything in the outside the 
world except zip codes. They mail things a lot, but they 
don't know — They say, "That zip code, oh yeah, that's in 
North Beach, isn't it?" or, "That's in the Richmond 
district," or "That's in Sea Cliff", or "That's up in the 
Haight-Ashbury. Where's the Haight-Ashbury, Gordon? We've 
heard so much about that from time to time." Well, Haight- 
Ashbury is actually about three blocks down the hill and 
across the panhandle, about five blocks away, but they 
didn't exactly know where it was. 

SMITH: They never leave the walls of the cloister? 
WAGNER: Only in an emergency. It was very interesting, 
that life within that cloister. It's probably one of the 
most beautiful places in San Francisco; I mean, once you 
see it. It just illuminates with light, just drips with 
light, it's so beautiful. So they gave us each a rosary 
and how to say it. They gave Virginia a book on the life 
of Saint Teresa of Avila to read. Their blessed mother-- 


their holy mother, rather, is Saint Teresa of Avila. Then 
we left and went back to Sebastopol . Virginia kept going 
to Father Swain and I kept working in my studio. The thing 
of it was that Gen Barnhardt had some of the writings of 
Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila in her 
library because she was a Catholic. The sculptor, Ray's 

SMITH: Right. 

WAGNER: So we started going to the churches around there 
on Sunday, not receiving any communion, but just going, 
seeing what it was like. Went to Sebastopol one Sunday, 
we'd go to Bodega the next Sunday, we'd go to Petaluma, 
we'd go to Santa Rosa; we'd go to different ones and see 
what it was like and how it felt, you know. All the time, 
every Sunday we would go, in Sebastopol, just on a little 
drive someplace. We found that the people were so 
incredibly friendly and so loving that it must be something 
wrong. The priests were so nice, and they talked about 
things that--there was no hellfire and brimstone; there was 
none of that sort of thing going on. Good sense of humor, 
good wit. There was something happening within us at that 
moment. I was still resisting the actual idea of any 
organization of any kind, because I've never belonged to 
anything; I don't believe in organizations, and I was 
always a nonorganization man. So it was a battle going on 


within me. 

SMITH: Then what happened? 
WAGNER: We left Sebastopol. 

SMITH: There was something that was appealing to you, but 
it sounds like it was more on an aesthetic level than a 
spiritual level. 

WAGNER: Well, of course, because in Mexico I used to go to 
the church every day and sit down by myself. I loved the 
Latin mass; I loved the chanting; I loved the mysticism and 
the things that you couldn't see. Logical people can't 
accept mysticism and the mythical. Being an irrational 
person, it was easy for me to pick up on these things. 
Because this story about Jesus Christ and the Lord in the 
Bible, the Old Testament and all of the Gospels, verse and 
everything that goes with it-- Either there's about nine 
hundred million, almost a billion. Catholics that are 
really suckers to the biggest lie in the world, or it's the 
truth. So if it's the truth, then you've got to go along 
with it. So what are you going to do? I'm going to just 
go along and accept the fact that it is and have that kind 
of faith. It's faith, that's all it is. You either 
believe it or you don't believe it. You don't have to 
analyze it, it's an aesthetic thing. It was the same thing 
when I'd sit in the church in Mexico, I had faith. If I 
didn't have faith I couldn't be an artist all my life, I 


would have given it up for the material world thinking, "I 
can't make it as an artist. I won't have any money; I'm 
going to starve to death. I'm going to do this and I'm 
going to do that." I never thought that way. I just keep 
doing what I have to do. It's sort of an assistance to me 
to be able to do what I do now and know that I have faith 
and that I'd turn it over to the Lord. I do not turn it 
over to myself; I am not running my show. He's running 

But to get back to Sebastopol: We left Sebastopol, 
and when Virginia came home, she said to Gen, "Boy, I sure 
loved your books. I read Saint John of the Cross and I'm 
thinking about becoming Catholic." 

Gen turned around and said, "Well, join the club." 
So we went over to San Francisco then. We were 
invited to stay in Mary Jane Staymate ' s house on Sutter 
[Street] and Fillmore [Street], where she gave us the whole 
top floor except her bedroom. We had a big bedroom in the 
front, and then there was another room, and then there was 
a small room that was Mary Jane's bedroom. There was an 
unfinished kitchen and deck, and that was turned over to me 
for my studio because it was empty. It was a big room, so 
I had plenty of room; it was like thirty by thirty feet. 
So I could work there, I worked in that studio. I had to 
wait until she would get up in the morning so I could pass 


through her bedroom to the studio, there was no other way 
in. Sometimes she didn't get up until nine o'clock and I'd 
be up at six, so I'd have to contemplate and think and do 
something else. She wasn't very much in favor of the 
Catholic church; she was a good Presbyterian, in the choir. 
But she was a very kind person, and she was a fighter for 
the community, and she was against HUD [United States 
Department of Housing and Urban Development] ; she was 
trying to stop a housing development in San Francisco. All 
these kinds of things; she was working on projects. She 
was from Arizona. She was a strong woman. She had a 
beautiful Queen Anne house. 

Well, Virginia was going on studying with Father 
Swain. She finally asked me if I would come and talk--he 
asked if I would come and talk to him about things, get 
something going once a week. I didn't want to do it, 
wasn't interested. But the way it worked out, I finally 
condescended to go once a week to go talk with him for one 
hour. And he said, "I'm not going to do the talking, 
you're going to do the talking. You tell me what's on your 
mind about this church." So for about ten weeks, I think, 
everytime I talked with him, I told him everything I didn't 
like about the church and about the people involved in the 
church and the way the church operated in-- Any 
organization I didn't like, no matter what. But it seemed 


to me that he was able to get around all those things; he 
always came out on top of the argument. So we found that 
it was really quite an interesting battle between Father 
Arthur Swain and myself. 


MARCH 7, 1987 

SMITH: Were there religious things beginning to appear in 
your art? In terms of your boxes, were you beginning to 
deal with religious subjects? 

WAGNER: Nothing, no. Nothing whatsoever was appearing in 
my boxes except what I was doing. When I was at that 
period, when I was arguing with him, I was going to [see 
Swain], I was making boxes. I made about, oh, fifteen 
boxes in that three months we stayed with Mary Jane. I 
guess it was more than that, almost six. I made the "Suit 
of Squares" playing cards, thirteen acrylics for the "Suit 
of Squares." Yeah, I started that. 

Then I had a big exhibition coming up in L.A. at the 
Downey Museum [of Art] that Lukman Glasgow had invited me 
to. So we took off from San Francisco; we came back down 
to L.A. and stayed with a friend of ours out in the [San 
Fernando] Valley in Woodland Hills, a painter, Pat 
Benefield, a surrealist painter, a very good one. We 
stayed there for probably about a month, and I worked on 
some more boxes there. She had a place where I could 
work. As a matter of fact, I built that box over there. 
The Gemini Lady, at her place, and this one out there. 
SMITH: What's the name of that one? 
WAGNER: That's Georgette. 


SMITH: Right. 

WAGNER: We only stayed with her temporarily because we 

were going to go to Belgium. 

SMITH: So you returned to Belgium to have a show there? 

WAGNER: Well, I didn't know what was going to happen. 

Prior to that they had given me an exhibition, oh, probably 

about a year before, and they'd sold about ten or fifteen 

pieces for me out of that show in the Architektenhuis in 

Gent. They had money in the bank in Brussels for me, and 

it amounted to something like, oh, I forget how many 

Belgian francs, but it amounted to $5,000 American. So it 

was possible for us to go, and live there without spending 

any American dollars. So we decided we would go with 

nothing really in mind except to go and see what was going 

on, check it out. So that was an experience, going to 

Belgium, getting there and being there the first-- You 

wouldn't want me to discuss that would you? 

SMITH: Well, we discussed your going to Belgium before. 

WAGNER: This time going to Belgium was a whole different 


SMITHWAGNER: In what sense? 

WAGNER: Well, I've never been treated like that in any 

other country in the world. We took off on the airplane 

from LAX [Los Angeles International Airport] and arrived in 

London at twelve noon, and from London to Brussels, and we 


got there about three thirty their time, which is about an 
hour difference, really, in flight. I got there, and there 
wasn't any-- I figured that they knew we were coming, I 
figured somebody would be there to meet us . Nobody was 
around. We couldn't get out of the customs line. So then 
when we did come up to the customs, they don't open 
anything up anyway, they say, "How long are you staying?" 

I said, "Oh, probably three or four months." 

"Oh, that's okay, go ahead." 

And we tried to find where we were going to stay. You 
know, when you got jet lag like that, it's hard to come out 
of the Brussels airport and wonder where you're going the 
first night. To get to Brussels it was thirty dollars, to 
get to here it was thirty dollars, the hotel was thirty 
dollars. I said, "Forget it. How do you get to Gent?" 

"A Sabena bus. " 

So we looked all over for the Sabena bus. I've got 
tools and equipment and all my tool box and stuff to work; 
I'm going to work there. The man says, "You get it over 
there, " so we wheeled everything over there. "No, 
up there, " back and forth. We finally found the Sabena 
bus, right in front of the station as you walk out the 
door. We got on a Sabena bus, Virginia and I and one more 
man going to Sint Maartens Latem, that was it--and the bus 
driver; that was the total amount to go from Brussels to 


Gent. We got to Gent about six o'clock at night. I said, 
"I'll go down to our old hotel," where we used to stay 
sometimes, the [Hotel] du Progr^s, when we first went to 
Gent a couple of times before we got settled. I carried 
the tool boxes and everything down the street, and I said, 
"You wait here, Virginia, I'll come back and get you in 
case--" I get down there and everybody was welcoming me. I 
hadn't seen these people since 1973; this was 1979, and 
they were shaking hands like I hadn't been gone all those 
years. I asked them if they had a room. "Oh no, no 
rooms. Just put your stuff back there and keep it for a 
while." So I put it in the back room with the birds. I 
went back up and called my friend Lucien [Cornells] . He 
says, "Gordon--" Yeah, he came right down and kissed me 
three times, and he says, "You're on time. I thought you 
weren't coming. We're waiting for you." 

I said, "For what?" 

"You're having an opening tonight." 

I said, "Where?" 

"In the Artemis Galeri j . " 

I said, "What?" 

He said, "Where were you? We sent the daughter of the 
govenor of West Flanders, the Countess [Regine van Outryve 
d ' I jderwalle] van Odenheim, to fetch you at the airport. 
The airport printed a big sign for her because the one she 


had was too small, with your name on it. You didn't see 

I said, "No". 

"She said she waited for over forty-five minutes." 
(And all the time we're back in customs. ) "She came to 
fetch you . " 

I said, "When is this opening?" 

"Eight o'clock. You have to eat. Annie [Niset] has 
all this soup. We're going to have a feast." 

I said, "Part of my luggage is in the du Progres." 

"Okay, we go and get that." We had a beer and talked 
for a couple of minutes, and then we went over there. 

We went back, and here's all my friends from all these 
years back all at the opening. After the opening closed at 
ten o'clock, they said, "The countess of the castle of 
[Baron Donj du Lovendegem] van Odenheim is having a party, 
and you are invited as one of the honored guests, the 
artists. It's necessary that you go there." 

I said, "Van Odenheim? That's out by Zottegem and 
Zomergem. That's about twenty miles out of town." 

"Yeah, that's right." 

"You mean we got to go there? We're a little 

"No, you've got to go, it's important." 

We get out there, and it's a beautiful night, the 


stars are all shimmering. We drive up this tree-lined-- 
they call it a dreef, the tree-lined roads to the castle, 
over the drawbridge, the moat, into the courtyard. There 
were all these towers and turrets and weathervanes, and the 
stars were twinkling. We got out and these big doors 
opened, and here is the countess, she is waiting, and she 
has two six-foot porcelain hunting hounds, dalmatian dogs 
on each side of her. She's bowing and sweeping Belgian- 
style, escorts us through the corridor with the kings' 
chairs and all of the velvets and the golds and the 
heraldry. We walk down this long hallway and down these 
winding stairs into the dungeon; that's where the party 
was. It was full of people. And she collected boxes. She 
had a fireplace that was wider than this room, and six of 
us stood in the fireplace and smoked cigarettes because the 
smoke went up the chimney, didn't offend anybody that 
didn't smoke. It was really something. 

At two o'clock in the morning we were pretty tired, 
and Virginia was getting tired. And I said, "Lucien, we 
got to go pretty soon." 

He said, "That's all right, we'll go." 

We took off, and on the road two guys come alongside, 
"Let's stop for a beer down here in another pub." 

"Forget it." It could have gone on for two weeks like 
this. This is a strange way to enter Belgium, with jet 


lag, you know, to have that all happen on the first night 
you arrive. 

Also, at that party I made the commitment-- These 
dealers were sticking money in my coat pocket, a thousand 
Belgian francs, two thousand, [laughter] I got all this 
stack of money. We made a commitment for me to have an 
exhibition on December 14 of that same year; this was 
October, or the middle of September, I guess. December 14 
would be the time for the exhibition. That meant that I 
had to do some work while I was-- I couldn't fool around 
much. So we took a house in Belgium, in Gent, and I 
started working. I made the exhibition all right. That 
opened on December 14. It was very interesting, because I 
wasn't a Catholic yet, I was still on the outside of-- I 
wasn't one of them from the standpoint of-- Although we 
went to church every Sunday in Gent, never missed. Cold in 
the winter. They have big heating lamps in the churches on 
posts because they're big stone buildings, and they can get 
pretty cold. The birds are flying all over the roof, the 
pigeons and the doves. That night was where I was told 
that I was to construct The Interior Castle [also known as 
The Castle of the Seven Dwelling Places] . 
SMITH: Who told you? 

WAGNER: He is one of the Carmelite priests at the 
Carmelite monastery in Gent. It's called the Centrum vor 


de Bezeining, meaning the Center of Prayer. It was 
Carmelite men. So I was told by Pdre [Frans] Hoornaert 
that I was to build this castle. I said, "What kind of a 
castle is that?" 

"Well, it's about-- It's by the book from Saint Teresa 
of Avila." 

I said, "We have one at home, in Gent here." 

"No, this is not the life, it is the interior 
castle. " 

I said, "I don't know anything about it." 

"Don't worry about it, you'll find out, no problem. 
We're going to have a competition. We're going to invite 
artists from all over Belgium to submit their models, 
drawings, paintings of the interior castle. We will give 
150,000 Belgian francs for the first award." 

So my friend Lucien, who was — We were going to 
collaborate on it. He was going to do part and I was going 
to do part. We thought that would be a good thing to do. 
We didn't know if it was a good idea; we didn't even know 
what it was. I barely knew anything about Saint Teresa of 
Avila, except what I'd learned in Cristo Rey. So all of 
the friends that were with him, "Oh, you'll like it. It's 
like your work, got lots of toads and snakes and demons." 
I mean, like Bosch, oh, yeah, that's right, like Bosch. 

I said, "That does sound interesting." 


It started from that night, which I found out later, 
December 14 is the feast day of the great Carmelite saint, 
John of the Cross. It was his feast day that my show 
opened in Gent. San Juan de la Cruz, who was with Teresa 
of Avila, you know, they were together. She asked for two 
priests to help her: Father Antonio and Saint John of the 
Cross. She looked at them, and one was a big man, and 
Saint John of the Cross was little. She said, "Ah, I have 
a priest and a half." [laughter] Saint John of the Cross 
was so small. 

SMITH: So you had decided that you were going to build The 
Interior Castle for this competition? 

WAGNER: Well, we discussed it. Lucien and I were going to 

SMITH: What kind of concept were you playing with? 
WAGNER: I had none. Nothing. 

SMITH: What did you know about what the interior castle 
was supposed to be? 

WAGNER: I had no idea what it was. It's really hard to do 
anything until you understand what it's all about, right? 
SMITH: You would think. So how did you find out what it 
was all about? 

WAGNER: Oh, that was much later. That was a long time 
after I came back from Belgium. San Francisco and 
everything else. 


SMITH: Let's continue. So you didn't The Interior Castle 

in Belgium. 

WAGNER: Oh, no. No, I didn't even attempt it. I had no 

way of being able to understand the interior castle as it 

should be in Dutch. They didn't have the Spanish version, 

and they didn't have an English version. 

SMITH: When people turned in their works for competition, 

did you see anything? 

WAGNER: It never happened. 

SMITH: Oh, it never happened. 

WAGNER: They got in a lot of trouble in Belgium, 


SMITH: The church, or — 

WAGNER: Just Belgium got in a financial bind. I guess 

they ran out of money to do that. That was a pretty tough 

time, 1980, in Belgium. It wasn't easy; they were taxing 

everybody, the land taxes, underneath their houses and on 

top of their houses, taxing the artists, taxing everything, 

you know. So it was really ruining the economy. 

SMITH: Then you came back home to the United States after 

a while? 

WAGNER: Came back to San Francisco and moved to the 

Richmond District, out by Sea Cliff, on California 

[Boulevard] and Twenty-eighth Avenue. I set up my studio 

there. I started reading about various and sundry saints 


and whatnot. I started working on my playing card series; 

I did thirteen boxes on the "Suit of Keyholes" at that 

point and finished up a little more polish to the "Suit of 

Circles" and the "Suit of Squares." I just went over. So 

I had the whole series together, and I read a little bit. 

SMITH: What kind of ideas were you working with in the 

"Suit of Keyholes"? 

WAGNER: Boxes. 

SMITH: Boxes, but that-- 

WAGNER: Thirteen boxes of puns. 

SMITH: Okay. 

WAGNER: Related to numbers. Take one, for example, a box 

that would be in the "Suit of Keyholes," The Five of 

Keyholes . 

SMITH: Which was? 

WAGNER: Well, it was actually in a room, like a kitchen, 

with a sink and a plumber's friend and a ship sinking down 

into the cabinet, into the dishtray, sinking. Up on the 

wall was written sinko, a pun on cinco. Such things as a 

golfer out in the country with a cow off in the distance, 

and he's swinging the golf club for four, and that sort of 

thing. There were a lot of puns, and yet they have that 

medieval feeling to them. It's the same kind of imagery 

that I would use in my boxes. 

SMITH: The "Suit of Keyholes" was a series of boxes. 


WAGNER: Oh, yeah, all thirteen of them. 

SMITH: Then you continued with doing pun boxes, right? 
There was Door Jam. 

WAGNER: Well, then I got into Just plain pun boxes, but 
that was not in San Francisco. While I was in San 
Francisco, I was just doing the keyholes. That's when we 
went to Father Swain and completed our discussions. 
Virginia could not become a Catholic because she had had 
another marriage she would have to have annulled. She 
couldn't track down her former husband, he had disappeared 
and there were no papers. It took two years until a 
Chinese canon lawyer just went [whistles] shoo, shoo, and 
cleared the whole thing off down on Church Street, you 
know, at the archdiocese of San Francisco. Then we were 
allowed to get married in the church. 
SMITH: But you had already become Catholics? 
WAGNER: No. No, we weren't. And then we could become 
when we were allowed to-- At the final thing we went 
through all of the sacraments at once. And Virginia-- The 
way it was, I thought I was already cleared being married 
to one back down there, but I never knew exactly where I 
stood. I said I had been baptized, I'd had communion 
before at Carmel, at my wedding. He didn't ask me for 
these things, but Virginia had to go through it from 
scratch; she had to do everything. Baptized, first 


communion, confession and confirmation, and marriage all 
five sacraments at once. We went through that in one 
day. Father Swain did it all in the baptistry in Saint 
Ignatius church with a couple of friends for witnesses. It 
took about twenty minutes, and then we went over and she 
had her first communion in the Carmelite monastery. The 
sisters all sang for us, and it was beautiful. They chant 
so well, you know, and they have an organ there, beautiful 
chanting. They did that for us privately the next morning 
with Father Swain as the celebrant of the mass. Then that 
solved that. That's when we got the book of The Interior 
Castle. I bought one in San Francisco, and it was so bad, 
I couldn't even understand what they were talking about. 
It was by another translator, Allison Peers. Didn't 
understand it; I just tossed it out. 
SMITH: Why were you pursuing it? 

WAGNER: Well, I sort of made a vow with Pere Frans that I 
would do something about it. And the Carmelites, I told 
them about it in Cristo Rey, and they were so happy that it 
just had to be done, they knew that. It was going to be 
1982 when it had to completed, not before. 
SMITH: Who said that? 

WAGNER: Well, that was when the four hundredth anniversary 
of the death of Teresa of Avila would be coming up. It was 
a festival for that. It was their feast. So it had to be; 


it was that year. In Belgium they call it four hundred 
Jubeljaar. Anyway, they gave me the book by a different 
writer, by Kieran Kavanaugh and [Otilio] Rodriguez. 
SMITH: Different translators, you mean? 

WAGNER: Right. That one started to interest me. The more 
I read it, the more I realized, "This woman is totally 
insane. Why am I even thinking about such things?" I just 
put it away. 

SMITH: What do you mean by insane? 

WAGNER: She was just mad, you know, madness. I couldn't 
understand what she was driving at. 

SMITH: You like madness, so why would that put you off? 
WAGNER: Well, no, but I couldn't see any way that I could 
manifest it into a three-dimensional work of art, you know, 
until I read the book about seven times. I kept reading 
it, and everytime I would read it, I would find, ah, 
there's an image, and I would make notes. I would keep 
writing down these notes. I'd go to each mansion of the 
seven mansions, and it took months and months. In the 
meantime, I'm doing everything else: I'm working on my 
keyhole boxes and other things, and I'm writing poetry and 
enjoying things and dreams, and I'm doing my normal 
thing. But I would set aside time to go through this, and 
I saw that there was no hope. I said, "But I've more or 
less made a commitment that I'm going to do this thing, and 


there's something going to make me do this." I can't 
explain it. 

Well, Virginia and I had been married, now, in the 
Catholic church. Father Swain said, "Well, your papers 
should be coming here pretty soon because-- I've got to 
have your baptismal papers from Carmel Mission and your--" 
or from Sacred Heart in Hollywood, where I went through my 
lessons with Father Ring, who was the head of USF 
[University of San Francisco] , he was the dean later, 
Jesuit. Well, I got a letter from Carmel Mission, they 
said I was a heathen and never had any baptism and that I 
had a special dispensation. 
SMITH: To get married the first time? 

WAGNER: I showed this to Father Swain, he said, "Well, now 
what?" He'd married this woman-- "I'll be back." We were 
in the middle of a talk about things. He took off for the 
office, he said, "Come on, let's go." He got the secretary 
out of the office, and he got a girl walking down the 
hall. "Let's go, we're going to have a wedding." So we go 
back in the baptistry, and we go through the whole marriage 
again preceded by my baptism. We had to write out all the 
papers and send them down to the archdiocese and do it all 
over again. It was funny. He was laughing so hard. 
Anyway, so we were married again. 

So Virginia and I were married by the I Ching in 


Topanga Canyon. We were married by the justice of the 
peace in Albuquerque. We were married by Father Swain at 
[Saint Ignatius de] Loyola Church USF two times. So we've 
been married four times. 

So The Interior Castle was on my mind all the time, 
but nothing was really happening, nothing was really 
developing. And I was starving to death; I was really on 
the bottom. I was paying $400 a month rent out there. I'd 
never paid that much. I'd been used to paying nothing or 
$200 a month all my life. The highest I ever paid was in 
Echo Park, from $80 to $200 they raised it. So $400 was — I 
couldn't believe it, that high. And Virginia was having a 
difficult time getting students. And artists in San 
Francisco, I don't know how they live there. They must 
starve to death. There is nothing going on for the artist 
as far as selling their art. It is a great place for them 
to work, but they've really got to get out and hustle. So 
I was so glad-- 

SMITH: Did you have a gallery in San Francisco. 
WAGNER: Yeah, Vorpal [Gallery], but they weren't doing 
anything for me. I was so glad for this man to come along. 

SMITH: Who is this man? 

WAGNER: I'm trying to remember his name. 
SMITH: No, but where — 


WAGNER: He appeared from-- Justine Fixel brought him over 
one afternoon and introduced me to this gentleman. We had 
a little lunch, and he looked at my work. "I've been 
waiting for this! For months I've been waiting for this," 
he said. "I wondered what I was going to do." 

I said, "What are you talking about?" 

"I'm going to give you an exhibition the end of this 
month . " 

And I said, "Where?" 

He said, "At Cal State [California State University] 
Fresno. I'm the director of the gallery." He says, "I 
can't pay you much. I can give you $300 for the rental of 
your work, and I can give you a ten-page catalog and 
guarantee you about $300 for a lecture and pay for your 
time in Fresno." 

I said, "How am I going to get this work down 

"I'm coming. I'll pick it all up. You don't have to 
do anything. " 

I said, "Yeah, but if I move back down to L.A.--" 

"Same distance. I can bring it from Fresno to L.A. 
just as easy as San Francisco. Right in the middle, same 
distance. You just tell me where you want it to be." 

So he moved all of my art for me, gave me this 
exhibition. We drove away with two suitcases and the 


basket chair from the living room. That was all we had. 
Everything else in our apartment we either borrowed from 
people or found on the street, like boards and doors and 
sawhorses. I gave them away and gave back the things we 
borrowed, like chairs and chests of drawers. We walked 
away with nothing. Drove out of San Francisco-- Came back 
down to L.A. and stayed with a friend out in Canoga Park 
until we could find this house in Pasadena. That was in 
1980, December, when we arrived here. 

Bill [William E.] Minschew [Jr.] was his name, a 
friend of Justine and Lawrence Fixel. Great person. He 
lives up in Clovis, that's north of Fresno, up on a 
mountain. What a wonderful way-- Just like it was a 
miracle just landed. He took care of everything; we didn't 
have to do a thing, just drive away with our little bug. 
Take off for Fresno straight down to L.A. after we'd been 
there for about five days. And get paid for it to boot. I 
said, "Well, we're getting out of San Francisco. It starts 
in Fresno, where they start to recognize artists again." 
[laughter] It was miraculous, how that happened. Moved 
everything right out to where-- The show ended, and 
everything came to my friend's place where we were 
staying. It was easy. 

SMITH: Well, let's get back to The Interior Castle. You 
were working from the book, but all you had was notes and a 



WAGNER: When I arrived here, it was December of 1980. 

SMITH: And you knew you had to have it done in two years. 

WAGNER: By '82. 

SMITH: But not before '82? 

WAGNER: I had to have it done, well, if possible-- Her 

actual feast day was November 15, 1982, but the year before 

they were going to be celebrating it all this time, you 

know, through '81. I wasn't coming up with anything. I 

was reading, reading, reading the book. 

SMITH: Were you thinking of a series of boxes? 

WAGNER: Oh, I was working on these pun boxes. Anything to 

escape The Interior Castle. 

SMITH: I mean, in terms of The Interior Castle, were you 

conceiving it as a series of boxes? 

WAGNER: I wasn't considering it anything. I had no idea 

at all what it was going to be. I knew how it wasn't going 

to be. I had a thousand ways of knowing how I wasn't going 

to do it. But I didn't know how it was going to be. And 

then I had some dreams. I had dreams where it was sewn 

together, and where it was glued together, and it was made 

out of leather, and glass was all running up and down, and 

needles were running through all of the things, and it was 

all tangled up, and there were mousetraps in it. Just 

awful dreams. I was having all these nightmares about 


it. Didn't have anything to do with it whatsoever. 

SMITH: Those kind of sound like your assemblages from the 

early sixties. 

WAGNER: No, they weren't even that. These things were 

much more messed up than that, no. These were disorganized 

piles of nothingness and globs of gloop. It was like they 

were being dragged up from the underworld, what was coming 

in the dream. But I knew that Teresa of Avila was a 

Spanish woman, and she was a fiery Spanish woman, and she 

lived in the medieval time, right? 

SMITH: Well, renaissance. 

WAGNER: Well, 1500. Fifteen hundred had pretty medieval 

architecture, they always say. 

SMITH: Yeah, well, the transition from the middle ages to 

the renaissance. 

WAGNER: She died in 1582; she died at sixty-eight years 

old. She was my age exactly, except for a month. She was 

born March 28, an Aries, and I was born April 13, so she 

was a month older than I am now. But she was still an 

Aries, three weeks older. She is only four hundred years 

older than I am. [laughter] So I thought about this 

castle as being something that should be related to that 

kind of architecture, you know. Oh, I had priests that 

were telling me it looked like a chambered nautilus. I had 

other ones saying it looked like a ball of mirrors. I had 


all sorts of suggestions about how it looked. None of them 
were what I saw or what I wanted it to be. So I just kept 
looking, kept feeling, kept writing and kept reading. 
Well, from 1979, when I started actually--late '79, the end 
of '79, the end of December, up to about the middle of '81 
or around in there, early '81, I was still reading. I read 
the book, I think, seven times. A lot. I knew what I 
wanted to put in the castle, but I had no conception what 
it looked like. So I had to go to mass one morning, and I 
asked Saint Joseph--af ter all, he's a carpenter--and I 
said, "Saint Joseph," I said, "you know that I'm an artist 
and I like to work and build things. If you want me to 
prove it, I can bring my saw and my tools, I will show you 
that I am serious about these things. I would appreciate 
it if you would actually help me and show me what this 
interior castle might look--" I never got the word "like" 
out of my mouth, because there it was; it was in front of 
me; I was looking at it. He showed me every detail of that 
castle, and the vision stayed with me for five minutes so I 
could study it. So I raced home immediately and I drew it 
out, made a drawing of it, pen and ink, best I could. I 
took it to San Francisco, because I was having an opening 
the next day after the vision in Pacific Grove Art Center, 
so I had to go. I took it to San Francisco, to the 
Carmelites, and I showed them what I had. They really 


loved it, blessed it, and thought it was going to be just 
what it was supposed to be. They could visualize it, too, 
when they saw what I'd visualized. I talked about the 
seven levels from seven mansions, what was going to be sort 
of in it and summarized up the thing. They were very, very 
pleased with what was coming. Then I came back, and I 
couldn't hardly wait to get back, because I started making 
drawings. I worked for the hottest-- I think it was the 
hottest summer we'd had here in Pasadena, in 1981. It was 
110 degrees all the time, and I was sweating constantly. I 
made all the drawings for the whole castle in two days, 
scale drawings, working drawings, exactly what it looked 
like. While I was working on it, there was a couple that 
came over that are doctors here in Pasadena, and I said, 
"This is going to be a great thing to do, but I'm broke. I 
don't know how I'm going to get it together, the money." 
Two days later they mailed a check to me, and it was enough 
to get me started. 
SMITH: Who was this? 

WAGNER: Gordon and Sharon Vigario, who lived down on Oak 
Knoll [Avenue] across from the Huntington Hotel there. 
They gave me the first money so that I could get going on 

SMITH: Were they Catholics or artist patrons? 
WAGNER: No, doctors. She works for Caltech [California 


Institute of Technology] for some laboratory there. She's 
a research lab person. Anyway, so they gave me money. 
They were both Catholics. And then Father Joseph Glynn, 
who's a Carmelite here in Saint Teresa Church in Alhambra, 
he shows up and he hands me a check for $200. "Well, 
Gordon, I think you can get going on this now. " Because he 
wanted to see this built. I showed him the concept. 
"Good," he said. "We keep together." 

So every time he'd come over, if I'd just put in two 
pieces, he would bless it. "It's coming. Incredible." He 
himself is like a leprechaun. He'd bless it everytime. 
Forty-eight priests and two archbishops. Cardinal [Timothy] 
Manning and the Archbishop [John R.] Quinn, from San 
Francisco, they blessed it. All of these guys blessed this 
castle, so it has a lot of blessings on it. Everytime it 
went anyplace. 


MARCH 21, 1987 

SMITH: I want to pick up where we left off last time, 
which was The Interior Castle [also known as The Castle of 
the Seven Dwelling Places] . Where we had left discussing, 
you had seen The Interior Castle as a vision when you were 
at church. Now, this was not a dream; you distinguish this 
from a dream. Why is that? 

WAGNER: It wasn't a dream. I wasn't asleep in the church, 
I was very much awake. It was at the mass, during the 
mass--I don't fall asleep during the mass--and I made a 
personal intention at that moment, you're allowed to do 
that, when the priest asks people to make personal 
intentions. I thought about it. I actually asked Saint 
Joseph, who was a carpenter and sort of the patron saint of 
workmen and laborers, a very patient man, I asked him if he 
could help me, to show me what it might look like after all 
these various and sundry preconceptions by just about 
everybody. I didn't get the last word out of my mouth when 
he showed me the whole vision right in front of my eyes. 
There it was, all I had to do was draw it out. I could 
remember it in detail. Right now I can remember all the 
detail, it was such a strong vision. It came like a light. 
SMITH: Had you had other visions before that you used in 
your artistic work? 


WAGNER: Not very many in my life, no. Not really. Some, 
but nothing that I was really conjuring up, that I asked 
for like that. 

SMITH: So then you drew out the plan for The Interior 
Castle. Let's discuss The Interior Castle and its various 
levels, how you chose to represent each of the levels. 
WAGNER: Well, actually, what I did was I actually 
manifested Saint Teresa of Avila's interior castle, the 
book she wrote, one of the great books, called El Libre de 
Slete Moradas in Spanish, which was her greatest piece of 
work, a scholarly piece known all over the world by all 
academics. So manifesting it into all this-- Because after 
all, the interior castle, who is it? It is every single 
person in the world; we're all the interior castle. It's 
how far we progress within ourselves in prayer and get 
closer to God, into the light. So it had seven mansions, 
or seven levels, of progress, the seven moradas, or seven 
rooms. The first, outside of the castle, was a moat. She 
always talked about it as filled with snakes and vermin and 
stench from foul sulfur odors and gasses. Creatures 
devouring-- Things that come out of the mud and pull a soul 
under so it has no progress in the world, it doesn't have 
time for progress or prayer. Now, those snakes and all 
those vermin and all those animals and creatures, if you 
actually get down to it, they're anxiety, they're hate. 


they're lust, they're jealousy, they're greed, they're 
viciousness. They're all of the things that keep you from 
progressing, from even getting inside of the castle 
because-- The first door there is very open to anyone who 
wants to go through the door into the castle itself. 

The first level is dark, very little light, so you're 
just crippling your way through the door. There are two 
toads that guard the door, as she says, that try to keep 
you from entering. When you actually get inside of the 
castle, it's so dark, and it's red and yellow and orange, 
the color. It is the Desert of Aridity, as she calls it. 
There's a hole in that desert with a well, and the well is 
so deep that you have to take a arduous descent down into 
the bottom of this well to get a drop of water. Water 
doesn't flow there; that's the holy water, the spirit. 
Actually, what you're doing in there, you're being 
sidetracked. Because in this room there are approximately, 
oh, maybe several hundred rooms that spread out around the 
first room, almost an infinity of rooms that will distract 
you and take you off on all of these different tangents out 
of the castle through the rooms rather than to rise 
upward. So you're always-- A lateral thing is happening. 
At the same time, you're not really seeing anything of the 
beauty of the castle because you're so busy still working 
and hating and doing these things that you haven't really 


gotten into it yet, what it's about. 

So if one has enough persistence, one can make it to 
the second level. But the second level is not much better 
than the first level, because all these people are in an 
illusion that they're gaining and making progress. There's 
all sorts of things in there that can bother you. The 
serpents are still there, and you get carried away with 
raptures, circumlocutions, and all of these things that are 
very damaging. You can lose yourself right there. You can 
also look down through that level to where you were wanting 
to say, "I don't want to be in this level, I want to go 
back down to where I came from. I know those people, but 
I'm not sure I know these people up here, and I don't know 
myself here. I better join them where I'm comfortable." 
That level has a windlass to draw the water up, much easier 
at this moment. That's where the devil sits with a file, 
as she says. He works with a noiseless file to cut down 
the pillar of charity. If he can catch you in this second 
room, he'll dance around hell 68,000 times holding his 
tail, for one soul, to take him back down to the bottom and 
outside in the moat again. 

The third level is when you go upward out of the sky 
above you, which is nothing but a mirror of where you are 
and where you've been. So getting through the third level 
is a very tough one. Once you get through there, then 


you've passed the real dangerous point, the danger point of 
being taken back down again. But the third level is the 
biggest room in the castle. It's filled with people, and 
it's a very comfortable place to be. It has gardens and a 
viaduct that carries the water with people who clean the 
viaduct. But actually, it's a very horrible place to be, 
too, because it is not where you want to be. It's not what 
Teresa's teaching, she's teaching contemplative prayer. So 
these people that are in this big room are, for the most 
part, most of the Catholic church. It's comfortable, they 
do the right things, the proper order of dress, they do all 
these things. But they are quite critical at times of 
others, and this is-- They get jarred up; if some emotional 
thing happens to them, they come apart. But all in all, 
they're all good people, and they all love the Lord, but 
they haven't found out how to really get to him yet, 
because only in the third room does the light start to come 
through . 

So there's this big cloud in the top of the third room 
called the Cloud of Unknowing. If a person does not go 
through the Cloud of Unknowing, they will stay in the third 
room forever; they'll never get out of that room. There 
are still serpents in that room, not many, but a few; they 
can bite you. But the water runs free through the viaduct, 
and there's flowers and gardens and everything is quite 


beautiful. Romantic and charming. But that isn't it, the 
Lord is looking for more than that. You have to go through 
the Cloud of Unknowing into the Cloud of Forgetting until 
you reach the other side in the fourth room, where it is 
the death of the old man and the birth of the new. She 
compares the actual soul to the cocoon and the chrysalis. 

I have used all these symbols all the way through this 
piece, like making my own monsters at the bottom, my own 
snakes, my own creatures, giving them funny names, and 
slime and mud, and the next room being that muddy room 
Inside with the little people all working and struggling, 
not paying attention. In the next room I have the devil 
sawing down the pillar of charity, and I have all of these 
symbols that she was writing about in her book. Then I 
have the third room with all the people very comfortable, 
hundreds of people in gardens and paths. Nobody's off the 
paths, nobody is making any waves, everything is just in 
order. It's an ordered garden. So I reach that fourth 
room, and I've got the cocoon in a garden that has 
nothing. It's just beautiful, with colors that change as 
you look through the windows , and then you go around and 
you see the chrysalis on another bush. 

And then the water has two fonts: One font doesn't do 
anything, it just stands there with water in it; the other 
font is filling all the time. That's the soul. The more 


the soul takes in, the more the water expands, and the more 
that comes into him. This is just water, again, she's 
talking about. Teresa was a water lover. It's like the 
mother and the child. The child cannot grow if it is not 
nursed by the mother; it has to have the mother's milk. So 
the mother is in there nursing a child in this light. 

This room is quiet and still, because she says we talk 
too much to the Lord, and we don't listen. Silence is the 
most important thing; stop talking and listen to what he 
tells you. Don't ask him all the time, let him tell you 
what he's telling you. If you ask him something, he will 
tell you, but don't keep asking so he can't have a 
chance. This is contemplative prayer. And this is where 
she was. She was an advanced woman of her time, four 
hundred years ago. Quite a radical among the church. A 
lot of them thought she was crazy and a flibbertigibbet and 
a gadabout and all these things. She was a powerful woman 
who had this concept that was given to her by the Lord. 
She wrote it all in six weeks, the whole interior castle, 
which is a masterpiece. 

Well, then we move up to the fifth room, which has the 
butterfly. The soul is a white butterfly so enamored by 
the love that he has been given--or she, you never call the 
soul he, it's always a she--that she has been given, that 
she's just suspended in space in this garden where the two 


rivers meet at a lake, very good water. Also in that room 
is the devil, who comes as the angel of light. Because at 
this moment, the soul is so vulnerable as to either rise up 
to the light of the Lord or to be taken back down into the 
bottom outside into the pit. This is the last chance the 
devil has of catching that character, that soul, before it 
goes to the next level, which is the sixth level, where 
Teresa spent so much of her time. 

I have the symbols there of all of the persecutors 
around the building. I have the soul, the butterfly again, 
still emerging. I have Teresa, herself, an image of her in 
the transverberation, where she received the arrow in her 
heart by the Lord, the flaming arrow, like the Bellini 
sculpture, the same idea, you know, great sculpture of 
Bellini. That plus the ocean. She said a great floodgate 
opened one time to her in a vision, and all the water ran 
in so big that the soul felt like a tiny ship balanced on 
the top of the wave. So I have the tiny ship balanced on 
top of the waves. I have the Holy Spirit coming down in 
that room . 

SMITH: How did you choose to represent the Holy Spirit? 
WAGNER: With the dove. I have the Son, Jesus, there 
because the Son-- She says, "Good Jesus will take me to the 
Father, so let him do it." So I have the Father and the 
Son and the Holy Spirit there--I have the Son and the Holy 


Spirit, and the Father is in the next level up. That's 
where the light is, where the tabernacle is for the blessed 
sacrament, in the tower. There's a light up there, and 
that light rains right down through the center of the whole 
castle through the top four levels. The closer you get to 
the Lord, the brighter the light. And that's the 
Trinity. That is in the center because everyone has the 
Trinity within them; down through the center of them 
there's the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit within 
them internally. 

Between the sixth and the seventh mansion I have two 
candles, the white candle and the gold candle. This is the 
betrothal between the soul and the Lord. They're entwined, 
and they can come apart and they're lighted, or they can 
come together and they're lighted. This is a symbol of the 
betrothal between the soul and the Lord. Under the 
monstrance in the top of the tower where the blessed 
sacrament is, I have the butterfly. The soul has died, 
given up. The marriage between the soul and the Lord has 
been consummated in that seventh mansion, so it's not 
necessary for-- It gives up and becomes with the Lord, 
married to the Lord. As far as the outer configuration of 
the castle, it had fourteen sides, which was a double 
seven, because of the seven mansions. I had seven with 
seven spindles and seven flying buttresses of gold sending 


down the energies down through the spirals into the moat to 
try and create energy to take the people into the castle. 
Because a pure man, one of the scroungiest bums crawling in 
the street, you would think the last person that could even 
get up and do anything-- The Lord has a whistle. It's like 
a whistle for dogs, you know, when you can't hear it, and 
he can whistle, and that poor man can go straight from the 
bottom of the moat right to the Lord's room that quick. 
And he can be sent back down just that quick. It's within 
the person. 

SMITH: In terms of the visual manifestation, was each 
level-- Like the ocean and the flood, that's one image 
within that level, the fifth level, right? 
WAGNER: All levels have water except the top. 
SMITH: Right. What I'm getting at is, how were you-- The 
ocean, flooding the room is such a universal kind of image, 
it overpowers the other images. There's a temporal aspect 
to what she's writing about. How do you combine these 
different images into a thing that you see all at once? 
WAGNER: You mean physically? 
SMITH: Yeah, physically. 

WAGNER: I have it right there in the piece. I have this 
Holy Spirit, of course, flying, and the butterflies 
flying. Jesus is standing on the water. Teresa is on the 
water because she could levitate, she could be anyplace. 


SMITH: Right. 

WAGNER: And the ship, the tiny ship, is balanced between 
two points of a big wave. The amount of water was given: 
it started small, as a drop down in the well, and the more 
you progressed, the more the water comes to you and 
flows. That's the Holy Spirit, and that's the holy 
water. It is a symbol of taking in. Like some people 
accept the Catholic church or any church or any religion in 
a thimble. Others accept it in a cup, others in a barrel, 
and others in a water tank, and others, the whole ocean; 
it's limitless. So the ocean is sort of limitless. What 
she actually used in her book for the last water that I 
substituted there because I couldn't make it work was rain, 
downpours of rain from the heavens. But I used light, 
which is still the light of the Holy Spirit. 
SMITH: Connected with this on the upper levels, the sixth 
and seventh levels in particular, where you're dealing with 
an intense spiritual experience, wasn't it difficult to 
visualize something that is maybe inherently not visual, 
that's very interior? 

WAGNER: Well, I'll tell you right now, the seventh level 
wasn't bad; I could get that one. But on the fifth and the 
sixth ones I was lost for a while. But I had plenty of 
time, because after all, I was so familiar with the moat 
and the first level and the second level that I could work 


on that for three or four months enjoying all the demons 
and monsters before I ever had to worry about getting to 
that level. By the time I'd been through that much, I 
didn't worry about anything on this castle. Teresa was 
working with me all the time. I would want to go to the 
beach, and I'd feel this tugging, "No, you're not going to 
the beach, you're going to work." I devoted every day of 
the year to building that piece. I could never get away, 
even for-- Well, if I wanted to get something for the 
castle it was all right. The lens I had to get, a round 
lens with a convex lens to fit into the monstrance for the 
Host. I didn't know where I was going to pick that up. I 
went to a jewelry store down on Lake [Avenue] and Del Mar 
[Boulevard] on the corner. I said, "I've built this 
monstrance myself." I said, "Do you have a lens that would 
fit into this piece?" 

"I'll see." So he took his calipers and measured it 
off. He went back and he pushed it in, click, and that was 

I said, "Will it ever come out?" 

He said, "Never. It will always be there". 

I said, "What do I owe you?" 

"Owe me? Do you think I'm crazy? I wouldn't take 
money for anything like this. This is something that is a 
very special piece of art, beautiful piece. How could I 


ask money for such a wonderful thing as this?" He was an 
Armenian. That was the end of that. 

I needed a tube one time to carry light from the 
seventh mansion down to the third mansion. It came down 
through the center. It needed the edges polished so it 
would transmit the light with intensity to the bottom. It 
was a plastic tube three inches in diameter. I called up 
this company down here on Foothill [Boulevard] and told 
them what I had and that I needed it polished up to 

"Oh, we burnish those things. You come on down, we'll 
take care of it for you." 

"What's the charge?" 

"It'll be about fifteen dollars for the job." 

I said okay. I went down on a Monday morning and I 
didn't have my checkbook with me. Oh, I did have a 
checkbook, that's right, I didn't have any cash. They took 
it in; they came back. "I didn't bring my money, can I 
cash a check?" 

"What for?" 

"To pay for this thing." 

"Oh no, don't bother. It's free. Take it." 

Endless things like that happened during this whole 
project. When I needed something, I was always guided to 
it immediately. Somehow I was taken there. Places I'd 


never been before, I found myself wandering around in 
finding exactly what I wanted for this project. Completely 
guided to it. I didn't have to-- Everything fell into 
place. The only thing I had a difficult time with were the 
twist-turnings that came up the outside. I remember I 
wanted to get these things, and they don't make them 
anymore, you know, the spiral twists. They were very 
difficult to find. I happened to be in the Pasadena 
farmer's market, and I saw a friend of mine I hadn't seen 
in twenty- five years. The last time I saw him, he had 
tried to commit suicide. He crawled down the mountain on 
Topanga Canyon to the highway and flagged a ride to the 
hospital with a bullet hole through him. Well, anyway, I 
hadn't seen him in all these years, and he was there. He 
lives in La Caf5ada[-Flintridge] . "Howard," I said. 

"Well, Gordon, where you been?" He said, "You still 
making art?" 

I said, "Oh, sure." I said, "Well, what are you 
do i ng , Howa r d ? " 

"Oh, I'm making furniture and refinishing it." 

"Oh, wonderful, you're just the man I'm looking for. 
Where can I get some of the twist- turned spindles?" 

He says, "Well, they don't make them anymore, but I'll 
look it up and see what I can find." Two days later he 
says, "There's a man out in the San Fernando Valley, in 


Sherman Oaks, who has all of that sort of thing. He's a 
private company; you can't just walk in and buy it from 
him, you have to have a reason. For goodness sake, Gordon, 
don't tell him you're an artist or he'll throw you out the 
front door. Tell him anything but that. Tell him you're a 
designer, or furniture designer, a decorator, and you're 
trying to get these. You want to make maybe a hundred of 
these things or a thousand of them, and you need the 
material for that. Don't ever mention that you're an 
artist. " 

So I got out there, I made an appointment and I came 
out. I found exactly what I was looking for in the 
catalog, just right, you know, three-quarters of an inch in 

He said, "How much do you need of this?" 
I said, "Well, I need about twenty-one feet." 
He said, "Well, they don't come in twenty-one foot 
lengths. I don't think you can get it that way. They come 
in ten- foot lengths, so you'd have to get about forty feet, 
work it out for ten- foot lengths. You'd have to buy 
extra. " 

So I said, "All right, whatever you say." 

"What kind of business did you say you were in?" 

I said, "Liturgical art." 

"What the hell is that?" he says. "That got something 


to do with the church?" 

. I said, "Yeah, I guess so; you might call it that." 

"I'm going to tell you something, son," he calls me-- 
I'm thirty years older than he is--"if you ever come in 
here again and buy anything from me, I'm going to throw you 
out the door. I've already written this out, so I have to 
do it, but don't ever come back." 

I said thank you and left. It took two months to 
receive this from Grand Rapids, Michigan. When the bill 
came, it was $112 for the spindles alone, but I did get 

There was a man in Topanga, he wanted to make them for 
me, thirty inches long for $80 apiece. So, you see, I did 
make out a little better. He was going to carve them for 
me, because they're so hard to get. So anyway, we got 
that. All those things were helping. 

Getting through the fifth and sixth rooms, what am I 
going to do? I'm blocked here now; I'm getting up there. 
I can get through all this bottom, all this debris, all 
these monsters, all these people and all these straight 
people with their fountains and their pretty gardens, but 
what do I do when I get to this part? That's what the 
people say, "What do I do when I reach the third room? How 
do I break through the Cloud of Unknowing?" That's what I 
had to learn. I learned something about contemplative 


prayer by actually reading about what Teresa's talking 
about. I knew enough about meditation from my early years 
in Buddhism and yoga and Taoism, so it came naturally for 
me to be able to to this and to quiet my mind and to stop 
thinking, as she said; think less and love more, that's the 
way she put it. Instead of going out there and oohing and 
aahing and rapturing and going on, give charity to 
somebody; help some poor person. That is the best 
meditation in the world, helping somebody, charity. So I 
just let myself go; I didn't worry about those rooms. I 
needed all these flowers and plants and things like that. 
I found that one of the greatest places for that sort of 
thing is right here in our hometown. Old Stat ' s down 
there, where I could get artificial branches and the 
feeling of the gardens and things to put into it, 

SMITH: Are there any found objects? Did you use any found 
objects in The Interior Castle? 

WAGNER: No, not found in the sense of found; I bought 
objects. Like all of the souls, all of the little people, 
which were-- Two hundred and fifty of them are in The 
Interior Castle. I bought them all in one big bag of 
people down at the Whistle Stop. They were for railroad 
stations and trains. They're all the color white, and I 
kept them that way because I wanted them to be white souls. 


souls all white like the lambs, the lambs or the sheep of 
the flock, I made a lot of my own objects for it. I made 
all the monsters, made that sort of thing. 
SMITH: What about the representation of the devil? 
WAGNER: I made the devil. 

SMITH: How did you arrive at the imagery for the devil? 
WAGNER: Well, it was easy, because I knew a lot about him. 
I just made a devil. It was a beautiful devil with the 
long wings and sitting on his tail in this room of mirrors 
where it goes on to infinity. He comes and goes with a 
file in his hand to file down that pillar of charity that 
the interior castle was built on, faith, hope and charity, 
golden columns like caissons on a building. He's filing 
down that one. It was easy to make the devil, one of the-- 
So simple. Then Virginia, my wife, she made the angel. 
She made little figures of Saint Teresa of Avila, and she 
made them all: the first one, where she's praying; the 
second level, where she's defying the devil with the cross; 
the third room, she says, "Hey, you guys, there's more," 
and then she's got the book, "go up to the fourth mansion"; 
she's telling them there's more. There's nobody in the 
fourth room, just a butterfly--I mean, just the cocoon and 
the chrysalis and the mother and child, but not Teresa. In 
the fifth room, the angel of light is there--Virginia made 
the angel of light--and Teresa's also there helping a 


child. In the sixth room, she's in transverberation, 
that's all. 

SMITH: The use of the toy figures gives a kind of 
childlike quality to the piece, not childish but 
childlike. Was that something that you were aiming for? 
Was that a goal, the simplicity? 

WAGNER: Well, they're not really childlike, the ones I 
got. They're not cute, they're actually real people, like 
these kind of people. They look like people, they don't 
look like funny creatures or animals, but actual, real 
people. They're similar to the kind of people I've used in 
Firaskew, not funny ones. No, they're very beautiful 
little German figures. Authenticity. If you want to get 
into the childlike quality, heavens, Teresa of Avila was 
probably one of the most childlike people you would ever 
meet, as a power. After all, "the Lord says, 'Think like a 
child." That's one of his major expressions, think as a 
child, accept things as a child. But childlike, I don't 
think I tried to do anything cute in this castle, 
nothing. I wasn't interested in that. I wasn't interested 
at all in injecting any of my own self into it at all. I 
was completely detached from the whole creation. It was 
just a matter of Saint Joseph's vision, her writing, and 
the best way I could relate to that was through the images 
that I could write down and build and put together within 


that symbolism to make it work as a whole. That is the way 
that it came out. I wasn't trying to do anything that 
wasn't-- Nothing was added to it. 

SMITH: Did you study some of the earlier religious 
artists, like Giotto or Simone Martini, or those medieval 
paintings, early renaissance paintings with multiple 
stories within them? 

WAGNER: Well, I used to enjoy looking at them in Europe, 
the Italians and the Flemish especially, like [Hans] 
Memling and [Roger] van der Weyden and [Lucas] van Leyden 
and [Hubert and Jan] van Eyck and the great Flemish painter 
[Robert] Campin. I just looked at them and enjoyed the 
surrealism that they had within them. Most of them were 
quite surreal, the Flemish especially, in their early 
religious paintings. A tremendous amount of surrealism in 
them. I used to walk into churches, and I always enjoyed 
the old church art of the medieval period, and that sort of 
relationship, and renaissance. I liked all the periods of 
that art, but I wasn't trying to make that art. Even in 
this piece, I wasn't trying to make that kind of art. It 
was a matter of it just formed itself from the way I was 
given the vision. I knew it was right, because I wanted to 
relate not as a ball of mirrors, not as-- Well, anyway. I 
didn't want to relate it to any of the images that had been 
given to me by other people that I didn't feel really knew 


what Teresa was all about. I really felt that I had to do 
this, because she was a sixteenth-century Spanish woman 
living in a medieval city, and I wanted it to feel like it 
was walled and strong and beautiful and elegant and of that 
kind of architecture. When Joseph showed it to me that 
way, I was so happy with the way it was going to be. 
SMITH: Where has the castle been exhibited? 
WAGNER: Well, it's been to about every monastery of the 
Carmelites in California. After all. Saint Teresa of Avila 
was a Carmelite. In 1982 it was shown-- It had its first 
showing at Saint Teresa of Avila Monastery down here in 
Alhambra on Alhambra Road. It's a cloister. They had it 
for two weeks within the cloister and I talked to all of 
the cloistered nuns. There I talked to them behind the-- 
just talked to them through the closure, through the 
grill. We took it from there to San Francisco, took it to 
[the Monastery of] Cristo Rey in San Francisco, the 
Carmelite monastery. I was allowed to go into the 
monastery there with the sisters of the cloister. Nobody 
gets in, but they said, "Gordon, you're a workman, like an 
electrician or a plumber." So they let me come in. I sat 
down with all the sisters in a circle, and we talked about 
the castle. I left it there for about three weeks. The 
archbishop was there, he saw it. Mother Teresa of 
Calcutta, she saw it. Everybody saw it. Then I took it 


over to the Pope Pius XII Room under the Saint Ignatius de 
Loyola Church at USF [University of San Francisco] and 
showed it to about 150 people, mostly poets and artists and 
writers of North Beach, a lot of beat guys and a lot of 
people I'd known in San Francisco, and three priests and 
about six ladies that were just there, and a lot of 
psychologists, and [Lawrence] Fixel and all that group of 
people came. It was a wonderful evening. 


MARCH 21, 1987 

WAGNER: Mount Carmel in Oakville, that's a monastery for 
men, Carmelite. It's a wonderful place up on a mountain 
right by Oakville. If you know where Oakville is, it's 
north of Napa, the wine country. It was there for about a 
week, and then we took it down to the Carmelite cloister of 
Marinwood, north of San Rafael. I gave three or four talks 
there. I gave talks in all these places. Then we brought 
it from there, from San Rafael, we took it down to Santa 
Clara to the cloister there, which is one of the big 
ones. These are all Carmelites. From that point we took 
it down to Monterey, out where the Monastery Beach is, that 
cloister where my friend Barry Masteller, and I were 
talking to these ladies, and they wanted to have it for 
about two weeks. So I said, "Where do you want it?" 

They said, "Come on." 

So Barry and I were carrying it through the cloister, 
back through all these sisters. So I've been in quite a 
few cloisters that not even priests can get into. In fact, 
I was in the one there where the priest thanked me for 
helping him or he would never have gotten into the place. 
Virginia couldn't go in, no laity are allowed. So it was 
an experience. Then we've had it all around here. We've 
had it at Sacred Heart retreat house. We talked in all the 


parishes. Saint Philip's, we had it right in the church 
there with three hundred people. We've had it Just about 
everyplace. Now it's been in Duarte, at the Santa Teresita 
Carmelite Hospital for the last ten months. Next month 
we're going to take it out of there and we're giving a talk 
on April 26 at the Saint Ignatius Loyola Church in Highland 
Park at six in the evening. From there I don't know what 
will happen to it. Virginia wrote the book about it, and 
she did a very good job of putting the book together. It's 
called The Castle of the Seven Dwelling Places. Everytime 
we take it someplace, we sell more books. That's the way 
we kind of get paid for our time. But the Carmelites paid 
us; they would give us a couple hundred dollars to bring 
it, and they'd buy the books, and they'd get people to buy 
the books. 

The best story of all that I can remember was in San 
Francisco at Saint Ignatius Loyola. There was a priest 
there from the Richmond District, the Saint Monica Church 
on Geary [Boulevard], Monsignor Daniel Cahill. He got up 
after the whole thing was over and told all my friends, he 
said, "You know, I'd like to tell all you people, if I 
could get something across to my people in my parish like 
Gordon does to you, I ' d be the happiest man in the world. 
I love this man," and he threw his arms around me. He is 
the father confessor and celebrates the mass for Mother 


Teresa of Calcutta's nuns on Church Street in San 
Francisco, and he's telling me this. A man with that much 
humility belongs in the seventh room. 

When we got back from Oakville, he said, "Gordon, I've 
got a surprise for you." 

I said, "What's that?" He said, "Well, you come on 
over • " 

We came over and he hands me a check for a thousand 
dollars. He'd made it out himself. He said, "It's not 
from me, but it's from an anonymous person who heard your 
talk at Saint Ignatius Loyola and thought that you would 
like to have this to carry on with your work." A thousand 
bucks, just handed it to us like that. 

Those kinds of things were always happening to us 
while we were traveling around with it. We spent about 
almost six months traveling with it. 

SMITH: I asked you earlier if you were a religious artist, 
and you said no. But surely-- Well, The Interior Castle is 
a work of religious art, right? 

WAGNER: Yeah, definitely. Well, I never would classify 
myself as a religious artist, but everybody else thought I 
did religious things, you know, in my own symbols and 
images in my assemblage work, you know, objects and 
things. But I never really classified myself as anything 
in the religious art. 


SMITH: Have you done anything else besides The Interior 
Castle that is explicitly devotional? 

WAGNER: Early works, yeah, I think so. I did that one on 
the crucifix with the spikes all around it; the Santo, I 
call it. Some other little boxes and niches and things, 
special things that I've given to Virginia as a present, 
like the Nifio de Prague and one to Saint Christopher. Some 
of those things. But it's not great art; I'm no master in 

SMITH: The image of the ascent, that is something that 
appears in other works of yours, the symbol of the ascent. 
WAGNER: The ascent, yeah. Well, I think I've always had a 
tendency to have things going upward. Very much of my work 
has been that way in the past. Centering, the centering, 
going up into the light. I think that all started way back 
with the American Indian, going up, uplift from the center 
from the earth up into the light. And through the 
meditation, through the kundalini and through the Taoist, 
through all of the different meditations, that's the 
centering that goes up through the spine, right? Actually, 
if you took The Interior Castle and put it into seven 
different levels, you have the seven different chakras of 
the body, right? You have the chakras. They're the same 
vibrations and energies to get to the light. So you could 
use the castle as the human form, which we are using. 


because it's every person. It's the development stages, 
every chakra, or his prayer, or whatnot to get to the 
illumination, or God, within them or the God within the 
Christian world. It's all part of the same. There's a 

SMITH: The Interior Castle is the symbol of rebirth of the 
soul, and you mentioned earlier that the period after you 
went to Europe was a period of struggle and rebirth for 
you. Was that struggle projected into The Interior Castle? 
WAGNER: I think I'd already been through that rebirth. 
You know, we can die several times in our lives and be 
reborn again. Fortunately, if we are artists, we have that 
privilege because that's the only way we keep going, or we 
would die of boredom. These little rebirths that get you 
going again for another five years are so nice to have, 
otherwise you are just sitting in a stale situation with 
the same thing all the time. It's nice to turn yourself 
around and shake yourself all up and get rid of all the old 
habits and patterns and start out with some other idea. 
SMITH: There's another thing I wanted to ask you about, 
which is, you mentioned that Teresa says, "Let the Lord 
tell you." 
WAGNER: Yeah. 

SMITH: And contemplative prayer. How does contemplative 
prayer relate to dreams? Is there a relationship? Does 


the the Lord tell you things through your dreams? 

WAGNER: Not really, no. Although I'm sure that the Lord 

is in your dreams, definitely. If you have a mind and a 

heart and a body, purified and clean from all of the 

contamination of the everyday world, and you're thinking 

about the Lord, I think there's a possibility that He can 

come to you in your dreams as well as at any minute. 

Because when I start to work, the first thing I say is, 

"Holy Spirit, come to me. Help me today. I don't know 

what's going to happen, but let's have fun together." 

That's the way I talk to him. We'll see what's going to 

come. Sometimes nothing comes, and then all of a sudden 

while I'm walking someplace, he lets me have it, there it 


SMITH: I guess what I'm probing for is the relationship of 

surrealism to your conception of the religious state and 

divine communication. Is there a relationship? 

WAGNER: Between surreal ism- - 

SMITH: Between surrealism and religion. 

WAGNER: Well, in one way there is, yeah, there is a 

relationship. I think that the Gospel and especially the 

Old Testament we use is probably one of the most surreal 

stories-- No surrealist ever wrote any stories like that. 

Pretty far out. 

SMITH: You mean like Joshua stopping the sun? 


WAGNER: Oh, everything like that, rivers and the Red Sea 
opening up, constant. Blowing with mud and He created a 
man. All these things are very, very, very surreal. 
They're not real to the average, logical mind, or rational 
mind, right? Anymore than they can accept God in the 
tabernacle of the church as a living person with real eyes 
and everything. The Catholic church only does that, no 
other church does that. He's there. He's not a symbol of 
there; He is there. Well, it's pretty hard for a lot of 
rational people to get through this. Even priests have a 
difficult time with it, so don't — But that's surreal 
because it's irrational, and when something is irrational 
it's surreal, you know. You either believe it or you don't 
believe it. You have faith or you don't have faith. Or a 
blind faith or a real faith. It's all stages of whether 
you can accept it. Some days you can accept it, the next 
day you can't. It doesn't matter. You grow, and the Lord 
will test you. He will do all sorts of things to block 
you, to get in your way, to tie you up, to give you some 
humility and love, love of others. So if you're going into 
the basic surrealist-- Every single surrealist of those 
early days, it's funny, but as much as they were protesting 
it, they were all Catholic, and they all died Catholics, 
and they were all buried as Catholics although they 
rebelled within it, which is a natural thing to do. We 


naturally rebel. There is no one-- That's the thing I like 
about the Catholic church, there is nobody in the Catholic 
church that is pure, there is nobody that is not a 
sinner. That's what I've had to go through with my 
director, my spiritual director. He told me you can't run 
a church without sinners anymore than you can run a 
hospital without sick people. These other churches, some 
of them have the idea that they don't sin. They don't 
worry about confession; they don't do anything like this 
because they don't sin, they're perfectly fine people, you 
see. So we accept all those things: we accept sin, and we 
accept love and we-- When you have that, no matter how 
strong the person might be, like [Andre] Breton and [Erik] 
Satie and [Yves] Tanguy and everybody else, when they died, 
they all took extreme unction, they were all buried and had 
the last rites. Although they talked against the church, 
they went through it. They bought it because it was such a 
powerful thing within their own minds and their 
psychological workings. Then the conflict between this art 
that was trying to put it down and everything else, their 
own insides were torn up by it. And the ambivalence of 
this thing-- So that made them very strong, because they 
had faith, actually a blind faith underneath. They weren't 
going very far, but they still had a faith to do what they 
had to do. That gave them courage to do it, to be 


surrealists, where if they hadn't had both of those things, 
they would have stopped, you see. So I think in a movement 
like that you have to have a lot of guts and a lot of 
faith, because when everybody is against you-- Just like 
the Catholic church, you've got to have a lot of guts, a 
lot of faith to belong to the Catholic church, because 
everybody hates you. That's the way life is. That's what 
Christ says, "Everybody is going to hate you and hate 
me." That's what He's taught, and we're used to it. We 
know that's the way it is. So you don't go around hitting 
your brother, you go around loving your brother. When he 
smashes you in the head, you just smile and say, "That's 
all right, thank you." That takes guts. And that's where 
surrealism was. 

SMITH: After you finished The Interior Castle, what did 
you move onto then? Were you doing any other works while 
you were working on The Interior Castle? 
WAGNER: No, nothing. For that whole year, I was just 
right on it. No, I had finished the acrylics and the boxes 
for my playing card series, so being interested in building 
castles, I built the playing card castle. The Suit of 
Pluses. That took a year to build after The Interior 

SMITH: That's a big constructed piece as well, an 
assemblage, a constructed assemblage? 


WAGNER: It's a castle. It has a similar feeling to 

Firaskew and The Interior Castle, only it's a card castle 

all by itself. It stands about forty-eight inches high and 

eighteen inches square. It's all full of illusions and 

mirrors and rooms, and it takes in the whole suit of 


SMITH: With that you completed your playing card series? 

WAGNER: That completed my playing card series, and I've 

never shown it. It's called "The Fool," that's the title 

of the exhibition if it ever comes about, "The Joker." 

SMITH: Of all four suits? 

WAGNER: Right. I've proposed it to a couple of places, 

and they're interested, but they never get together, you 

never hear from them. I'm sure it will happen one day in 

the near future, maybe in a year or two. 

SMITH: Then what did you work on? 

WAGNER: What year would we be talking about? 

SMITH: 'Eighty-three, I think. 

WAGNER: ' Eighty- three. 

SMITH: You certainly-- A lot of your pun boxes were done-- 

WAGNER: Well, they were before. 

SMITH: Well, Draw Up a Chair is '83. 

WAGNER: No, these little ones here, the black and whites, 

they were before the castle. Draw Up a Chair and some of 

those things came after The Interior Castle. I was working 


on those also during my playing card castle. These little 

ones. Arcane and this one. And this Draw Up a Chair was 

actually built at the same time as the first room over on 

the corner, that building, in Firaskew. Because in the 

bottom room of that building is a "Draw Up a Chair, " and 

that's a spin-off from this box. So the two related at 

that moment. I built those in San Pedro, in Tony 

Portillo's house and studio in '83, the summer, when I was 

staying down there for the summer. 

SMITH: When did you do the Marine series? 

WAGNER: I've been working on the Marine series, I guess, 

for years. Whenever a good one comes up I keep adding to 

them. I'd like to really have a show sometime, the whole 

set of them. Probably, I started the first of the Marine 

series in 1975 with The Prairie Schooner sinking on the 

prairie, on the desert. A sixteen-mast schooner. 

SMITH: And then there's The Room. 

WAGNER: The Room is more recent, that was 1985. It's 

falling off [the picture frame]. I've done quite a few 

since that time. 

SMITH: Is that symbolist art? 

WAGNER: The symbolists? I don't think so, do you? I 

wouldn't call it symbolism. I think it's more surreal than 

symbolist, because the juxtaposition-- The room with its 

ship falling out of the painting that's tipped on its side 


and letting the water run out of it is not exactly 

symbolist. Do you think so? 

SMITH: Well, it can be read from a symbolistic viewpoint. 

WAGNER: Yeah, but it has no underlying meaning, though, 

except that I've been into people's houses in my life with 

rooms like that, with cards thrown down and beer cans and 

whatnot and things on the floor, trophies. 

SMITH: The ship doesn't have a specific symbolic meaning 

for you, then? 

WAGNER: I don't think it does. It probably does in all of 

them, basically, because I love ships. There's something 

about them. I'm always putting them into strange 

juxtapositions where they don't belong or doing things that 

they wouldn't have to normally be doing. I've always been 

a lover of ships. I'm a shipwatcher, a professional 

shipwatcher. I could watch them for years; I never get 

tired of going to the harbor and sitting down by the water 

and just watching them go by. It's a very contemplative 


SMITH: In Christian art, the ship is one of the symbols 

for the soul. 

WAGNER: That's right, hangs in the church, a bark or 

sometimes a full-size ship. 

SMITH: But in your case, in these works, you're not-- 

WAGNER: I never thought of them from that aspect until I 


got into Christianity, being a fallen-away pagan, you know, 
six years or something. I'd seen them in churches, but I 
never connected them to anything. I thought they just 
didn't know what to do with them, so they hung them up on 
the ceiling. [laughter] Some of them in Sweden are 
incredible, whole galleons and barks and hanging down from 
the church, the beams, on chains. Incredible. 
SMITH: Let's move on to another subject, which is your 
getting involved with Angel's Gate Cultural Center. When 
did you start working with Angel ' s Gate? 
WAGNER: Nineteen eighty- two. 

SMITH: Had it already been formed, organized? 
WAGNER: I was one of the first artists invited to submit 
some sort of a proposal to be there, to have a space to 
teach, only. That was through Honor Kirk, who was the 
director at the time, who's now the director of the 
Aquarius Gallery in Cambria Pines--Cambria, I guess they 
call it. She phoned me up and asked me if I would be 
interested in this. Another friend of mine I'd known a 
long time, Nick Kappes, who is a photographer, he told me 
about it a year before it happened. He said, "We're going 
to try and do something like they did in Fort Mason with 
the old military barracks and kind of develop it from that 
aspect." Fort Mason in San Francisco. 

So I said, "Well, it sounds interesting." 


"Well," he said, "Just make out a proposal, whatever 
it is you would like to do." Just teaching at that time. 

So I made out a proposal to teach senior citizens. I 
always thought that the senior citizens should have more of 
a chance than they do to express themselves, in more ways 
than just piddling around with cutting out flowers and 
making crafts and being passed off as old people without 
any imagination, just dumped in a little class to make 
pretty little things. I thought that I could probably 
bring out something of the senior citizen that they really 
wanted to tell me. Because every one of them had a story 
inside of them to relate, and I was going to work it out 
through their dreams, and through their poetry, and through 
writing, and through building things, and through drawing 
and painting, and go beyond the artsy-craftsy senior 
citizens programs set up in seniors centers for funny 
little old people who have nothing to do with themselves. 
I thought that would be a good program, so I wrote it all 
out that way. And nothing happened. I went down there, 
and there wasn't a soul for the class. Not one senior 
citizen came. There was no one. [laughter] It was as 
dead as a mackerel. So that class never manifested into 
anything. That was the end of that. 

I was teaching at that time in the Palos Verdes 
Community Arts Center. I had students there, around ten 


students, faithful students, in assemblage. There was a 
little bit of tension going on up there among people at 
that particular moment. I always had to fight to get a 
class there, because if you didn't have the students, you 
didn't have the class. I got sort of tired of-- One woman 
by the name of Pamela French was my faithful getter of the 
students. Everytime I'd have a class, she'd have to go out 
and call them all and work at it and get them to come. So 
I got pretty fed up with that way of teaching, so I decided 
to try it at Angel's Gate. I said, "Well, there's a big 
space there and we can work. Why don't we try it and see 
what happens, see if we can't get something going?" So 
they all came, the whole group, and they loved it up there. 
The atmosphere was better, and we had a big, big room where 
we could really work and do things. The people there were 
all very cooperative, and it was a community. We had our 
own gallery going; it was a small gallery at that time. We 
had different exhibitions by different artists, but in a 
different way at that time. Honor Kirk was the sort of a 
director who, you never knew exactly what she was doing. 
She meant well. She was a painter herself. Finally, the 
whole thing came to the point where Honor left. She was 
offered a house in Cambria, so she moved from Portuguese 
Bend, where she lived, and she turned it over to Bobbie 
[Roberta M.] Miller, who's the current director. Well, 


Bobbie didn't want the job. She was a painter and she just 

wanted to paint, but she said she would try and see what 

she could do to help. Everything that Bobbie did, well, 

people started to be irritated by what she was doing, 

because she was trying to change things around slowly to 

make an art center out of it. A lot of the people were 

very disappointed that were the original group that were 

working there, because she was saying things to them that 

could bother them, you know. 

SMITH: Bother them personally or bother them over the 


WAGNER: Yeah, personally, over the issues. 

SMITH: Well, what were the issues that people were arguing 


WAGNER: Well, they had a lot of problems there because 

there was a young group that had a different idea of how 

Angel's Gate should be run than the way Bobbie was running 

it. They broke off and formed an art association, which to 

me is death. Any art association, as far as I'm concerned, 

just the word "art association" is death to me. It's a bad 


SMITH: By "young group" you mean people in their twenties? 

WAGNER: Yeah, that had recently come to Angel's Gate. 

They knew everything there was to know; they were very 



SMITH: Art school graduates? 

WAGNER: They were college graduates. There were actors 
and there were actresses and painters and potters and 
people of that nature. They were doing all sorts of things 
that Bobbie didn't like, the way they were operating. 
SMITH: Like what? 

WAGNER: Underground things, underhanded things, behind her 
back. Talking against her, and that sort of thing. They 
took it up with the city council in San Pedro. They went 
to Flores, Joan [Milke] Flores, and created a lot of 
problems. They convinced Joan Flores that Bobbie wasn't 
doing a good job. I called up Joan Flores, and I said, 
"What's the trouble here anyway?" 

She said, "Well, Bobbie Miller has got to get her act 
together. She's too emotional. We're not going to renew 
your contract on that land unless you get something 
together up there." 

The way it was, the land was leased for three years 
without paying anything, but it was just the idea they'd 
give us the land for three more years that belonged to the 
parks department, the actual land. But Bobbie's smarter 
than all that, and she's a real fighter. She found out 
that it didn't belong to the parks department, it actually 
belongs to the [United States] Department of Interior. So 
she started working with the Department of Interior and 


found out all these things. They said, "No matter what 
happens, you're going to stay here. You're doing a 
remarkable job." 

SMITH: Well, were there differences over the kinds of 
classes that should be taught? 

WAGNER: No, never anything over classes. No, nothing like 

SMITH: Differences over the kinds of programs that would 
be presented? 

WAGNER: No, personalities over the theater, for instance. 
They had live theater, and the actors and the dancers, they 
created all sorts of ego problems, narcissistic ego 
problems that occur with dancers and actors. It's just 
their temperament to do that. If they can't get the money 
they want or the way they want it, they complain and rebel, 
and they quit. All these great boring type of people who 
are not doing that much, you know what I'm talking about? 
They think they're really important. This center was not 
based on that sort of personality. It was a place for 
artists to come and work and have a place to work and teach 
and help the community. It was built for the community to 
have classes, free classes, for children and for grownups 
and for anybody who wanted to come to extend their 
expression. It wasn't set up on a program to set it up as 
a commercial theater and organize it in that direction. 


This was the way it was going. The board of directors and 
Bobbie, they all had a fight with this big group, I 
remember. It was a lot of nasty words thrown around in the 
meeting. Finally, they all left, they disappeared, that 
whole group. We got back to normal again, back to where 
we're going. Currently, we have about fifty-five studios 
working with artists, dancers, writers, poets, music, and a 
gallery that is a community gallery. It is not a cultural 
center gallery, it's a community gallery. 
SMITH: What do you mean? 

WAGNER: Well, there's a difference. A community gallery 
is like in a university or-- San Pedro has no other 
community gallery, it is the only community gallery within 
that part of town. There isn't any other place, so that 
gallery is-- It has now built itself up to the point where 
it's recognized as a community gallery. If you said art 
association, they will not list you in any newspaper; or a 
culture center, you will not get a listing in any paper. 
But if you're a community art gallery, then you're 
listed. That's for Art News, Art Week and the [Los 
Angeles] Times, or any other paper. Then they cover you. 
As soon as the words "community gallery" come on it, then 
you ' re covered . 

SMITH: I don't see what the difference is in terms of the 
meaning between a cultural center and a community art 



WAGNER: They have a cultural center, but they have a 

conununity art gallery within the cultural center. That is 

separate. Here is a community gallery, but the art center 

is all around it-- the cultural center. That took time; it 

took a lot of history to put together slides and 

backgrounds and clippings to send to these people, to the 

California Arts Council, to make them realize that we do 

have an important community gallery and that it's the only 

community art gallery in the whole south end of Los 

Angeles. There's no other one. There's college galleries, 

but there's not another community gallery. So that's very 

important . 

SMITH: You teach classes there still. What are you 


WAGNER: I teach assemblage. It wasn't until, oh, three 

years ago that they asked me if I would like to have a 

studio to work in. So they gave me the studio. If you 

work and teach in the studio, you get it absolutely free. 

SMITH: Do you get paid for teaching? 

WAGNER: Yeah, that's true, I do. I get paid for teaching 

and I have a free studio. 

SMITH: Are you involved in the decision making at Angel's 


WAGNER: I'm on the board of directors at present; I've 


just come on it. I have always been involved in the 
decision making, because Bobbie always comes to me with 
what do I think of this? or what should we do about that? 
Especially on exhibitions and gallery operations, because 
at one time I was sort of in charge of hanging all the 
exhibitions and putting them together for Angel's Gate. 
Paul Bouchard, myself, and Lieve Jerger, who is a Belgian 
lacemaker, a little blonde over there, and a few others, we 
kind of took care of that, to curate exhibitions and try to 
get high-quality work from the very beginning. We never 
let it go into the amateur state. Then they did have a 
curator. Penny [Penelope] Cornwall, who was a paid curator, 
for a while. They had to let her go because the funding 
wasn't enough for her. Well, now they have no curator, but 
there are shows coming up where they will be having a 
curator again. There are several good shows coming up in 
the future, one with Ed Lau and his group is next. Then 
there's going to be a photography and poets show, "Poets 
Who Make Art." There's one coming up in 1988 which will be 
a California impressionists, abstract impressionists, of 
the fifties, the forties and fifties, which will be just on 
Southern California artists. Some of the old ones will be 
in that show, like Phil Dike and--I guess we'll have to 
include Millard Sheets. [laughter] Roger [Edward] Kuntz 
and a lot of the ones who were around for a long time. 


[James] Strombotny. 

SMITH: Has Angel's Gate done historical shows like that 


WAGNER: You mean as a retro- - 

SMITH: Well, not retrospective. 

WAGNER: Sort of a documentary of certain periods? 

SMITH: Right. 

WAGNER: No, we've never tried it. It was my idea. I 

presented it to them. Arnold Schiffrin will be the curator 

of the exhibition. He knows a lot about gathering things 

from museums from that period, and he already has 

practically the whole exhibition together. They want to do 

a catalog through the Arts Council. 

SMITH: Will any of your pieces be in it? 

WAGNER: No, I don't think so. I could have them in. They 

want me to be in it, but I don't think I want to be in 

it. Maybe. [laughter] 

SMITH: You also recently curated a show at Barnsdall 

[Junior Art Center], the "Toying Around" show. What was 

the concept behind that? 

WAGNER: Well, actually, it was the lady who-- It was very 

interesting, because Harriet Miller was the one I was 

working with, she was my director at the Palos Verdes 

Community Arts Center when I left and took everything to 

Angel's Gate. I didn't think I'd ever see her again. We 


got along all right. She was a nice lady, I guess. I 
liked her at that time, but she had a lot of strange ideas. 
She was always nice to me. I will never quite understand 
how she could be living in a condominium that is on top of 
the house where I was born in Redondo Beach. So she became 
the director of the Barnsdall Junior Art Center. When I 
was asked to teach at Barnsdall Junior Art Center, she was 
kind of surprised to see me there in the beginning. But I 
was there one summer, and then a couple of more times, and 
then she called me one day and said, "Marty Walsch has left 
the center. Would you curate an exhibition for me called, 
' Toying Around ' ? " 

I said, "Well, what do you think we should do?" 
"'Toying Around,' we want to do something funny, 
something really amusing." And she said, "Marty Walsch has 
some of the artists already, but maybe you could get a few 
more • " 

So I called all the artists that she had, and I found 
out who they were, Dave [David] Quick and Jim [James] 
Jenkins and some of those people. Then 1 called up Garner, 
Phil Garner, and a few of these kind of characters. We put 
this show together and it was-- I wanted to make it feel 
like it was a funhouse or a place of Joy, like when I was a 
kid, a penny-arcade-like feeling, with moving kinetic 
sculpture, and painting the whole place like all skies, and 


little doors you walk through, and the walls all cockeyed 

like an old funhouse. I wanted to give that feeling that 

you're kind of toying around in there. 

SMITH: All assemblages in that show pretty much? 

WAGNER: Yeah, they were all three-dimensional art, kinetic 

and otherwise, static. Some of them were quite humorous, I 

thought. A lot of humor. It had the largest attendance of 

any exhibition that they'd ever had at Barnsdall Junior Art 

Center. They were coming in droves. We got a very good 

review on it in the Times. 


MARCH 23, 1987 

SMITH: Well, we ended last time with The Interior Castle 

[also known as The Castle of the Seven Dwelling Places] and 

some of the boxes, completing the playing cards series and 

some of the boxes that you did after The Interior Castle. 

What were your next projects in '84, '85, '86? 

WAGNER: That's when I started one of my major works, sort 

of an epic piece. 

SMITH: Which is? 

WAGNER: It's called Firaskew, not knowing what that word 

means except that it came in my dreams. 

SMITH: The sound, the word itself, or the image? 

WAGNER: The actual word, just in my dreams. Many 

different dreams of Firaskew would take me to these lonely 

places and cities of my inner traveling, night journeys. 

There was always a sign that pointed the way, either on a 

beer can or on a marker on the road or on a cliff, an arrow 

pointed: "Firaskew." I would get there and it always 

turned into some fantastic city. Sometimes I'd go by 

train, sometimes I'd go by car, sometimes streetcar, 

walking, automobiles, through deserts. All sorts of ways I 

got to Firaskew, different kinds of vehicles. 

SMITH: Does the name have any particular meaning? 

WAGNER: It has no meaning whatsoever except what it says 


on the sign in my dreeuns. I looked it up and tried to find 
out a derivation, and there's nothing. 
SMITH: No relationship to-- 

WAGNER: No relationship to anything that I know of, unless 
it's fear and askew, but that doesn't really make it to 
me. It's just a word that came. People say, "What does it 
mean?" Well, it doesn't mean anything. 

SMITH: The Firaskew that you've constructed is an amusement 
park. Is that all there is to Firaskew? Isn't it a larger 
place than that? 

WAGNER: Well, this particular construction of Firaskew not 
only goes to the dream, but it goes to my childhood, my 
boyhood, when I was quite involved in and loved the old 
amusement parks. Even today, if I am anyplace that I see 
an amusement --not like Magic Mountain or anything, I mean 
old ones, old roller coasters, old buildings, weathered, 
along the sea preferably. There's a certain wonderful 
mystery that happens to piers along the sea, full of 
goodies like that, mists and fogs, the white iron against 
the gray sea. There's something beautiful about it. So 
this actual construction was things that I remembered from 
my childhood, some of the things that really were 
outstanding in my mind. I adapted those into the piece. I 
can always remember walking down the strand when I was a 
boy of about six or seven years old. Moonstone Beach in 


Redondo [Beach] . I used to go down there on Sundays with 
all the rest of us. We had bottles and we'd fill the 
bottles up with moonstones and wait for the tourists to 
come down in the afternoon on the streetcar. In those days 
it was called the "green cars." The balloon trip went from 
Los Angeles down through the beaches and over to San Pedro 
and Long Beach and back up to L.A. again as a loop. We 
would sell moonstones for five cents apiece to the tourists 
and make a pretty good day at that. That Moonstone Beach 
strand that we walked on, I used to love it, right on the 
sea. You went under the old white structures of the roller 
coaster, and underneath that was the curio shop. I always 
looked in the windows, and I loved to see all these things 
they had, stones and polished gems and chips and models and 
shells. They always fascinated me when I was a kid. I 
remember I always was very fascinated by maritime museums, 
where they had ships and ship parts and models, all of 
these sort of things of the sea. I thought it would be 
necessary to have my own maritime museum in the piece. The 
one thing that I remember very clearly, and I used to laugh 
because we used to go on it all the time, was the Tunnel of 
Love, where the swan came down the chute of water, and you 
went into this-- Usually, if you could find a nice 
girlfriend to take with you, you might even be brave enough 
to hold her hand, you know, in these dark chasms. They were 


sort of a romantic place. They didn't smell very good, the 
water was kind of stagnant in there, but you got used to 
it. It was dark, and the swans were big white swans that 
were pulled by a conveyor through the water down through 
the paths. So I incorporated the Tunnel of Love in this 
piece, starting in one building over there, under the 
farmer's daughter's card room, and moving around through 
the whole interior of this Firaskew in chasms where the 
people are waving at you from time to time as they go 
by through the maritime museum and down the hall of the 
curio store. 

Another thing that I can remember very deep in my 
memories was the house of mirrors. People are in there all 
tangled up in the glass, confused, not knowing which way to 
go, banging into the walls. Some people were panicking, 
other people to the point of exhaustion, others were 
laughing and hoping they'd find the right way out. Up on 
the roof of the house of mirrors was the laughing girl, who 
was a woman who sat there all day and went ha-ha-ha-ha-ha- 
ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. You looked down below, and you saw all 
these products of what she was laughing at floundering 
around in this house of mirrors. It was all exposed to the 
public on the outside so you could see what was there and 
you could watch them. It was an interesting aquarium of 
people. So the house of mirrors is the one on the other 


side over there. There were always ballrooms for 

dancing. The place where I used to dance was the Hut in 

Hermosa [Beach] and the Mandarin Ballroom in Redondo and 

the Casino Gardens in Ocean Park. All of that. So I have 

a ballroom up on the penthouse, but I have a ball team in 

it instead of a dance pavilion. 

SMITH: A baseball team. 

WAGNER: A ball team, yeah, in the ballroom. 

SMITH: Does Firaskew-- Since it comes out of dreams, is 

there a particular message? Is there a dream message 

that's involved in this construction? 

WAGNER: I think the message that I'm trying to convey here 

is that practically every human being loves the structures 

of older buildings. There are so many of them that have 

been removed, it's almost impossible to find any like this. 

They love the romantic side of it. All these great 

amusement piers in the country, in Europe, they were all 

designed like palaces of gaiety and a place for joy and 

laughter and happiness. They were never built for sadness 

or morbidity. They knew nothing about electronics or 

plastics, so everything was sort of created as an art form; 

the paintings, the buildings, were almost like American 

folk art. 

SMITH: When you were in England, did you go to Brighton 



WAGNER: I loved Brighton Pier. 

SMITH: How did it compare to Hermosa, to what you grew up 


WAGNER: To Redondo? 

SMITH: To Redondo, yes. 

WAGNER: A different kind of elegance. 

SMITH: In what way? 

WAGNER: Well, it's very Victorian, the Brighton Pier, 

elegant. It was all made of steel, the ironwork and the 

filagree, and not wood, like our piers were. They had 

steel pilings and ornate curlicued pier railings. It was a 

different feeling. I remember one time being told that the 

Brighton Pier, the Palace Pier, it was called — There were 

two piers in Brighton, the West Pier and the Palace Pier. 

The West Pier, when I was visiting there, was closed during 

the winter, but the Palace was open. So I decided to-- I 

didn't really want to go on it because I thought it might 

damage my imagery and all the love I had for piers, and it 

might destroy some kind of an inner feeling I had for this 

sort of architecture and this kind of condition. I liked 

to look at it from a distance, but not get too close to it, 

because sometimes when one becomes too familiar with 

something the whole romance is gone. So I went on the 

pier, but I went for a particular reason. I went to see 

some boxes that a man built. They were boxes that wound 


up, they were kinetic boxes, and if you put in a shilling, 
it would do things. All sorts of comical boxes. Some of 
them weren't so comical, really, they were rather morbid, 
like the guillotine and the swinging blade and the 
hangman. But there were others that were more humorous. 
So I decided I'd like to go on this pier to see those at 
the end. So I took a very long morning and just took my 
time and built up all sorts of anxieties about it, and I 
even stopped for coffee. When I finally arrived at the end 
of the pier, I walked all the way around this end, because 
it's a huge beautiful facade: archways and columns, white 
and gray, standing out there against the sea. It was such 
a strong inner thing coming into me that I just sat down 
for about half an hour just to absorb it all. All these 
old piers and all these memories and all these times of my 
youth all came back through me, sitting on this bench. 
There was an outside theater on the back of the pier and I 
sat down. The wind was blowing so cold, I was almost 
rigid. So I took my time and walked around, and I saw the 
fortune-tellers, and I saw the cockles and whelks. But 
they were closed, everything was closed. I went into the 
pub, and I said, well, this is open, one thing I can-- I 
sat down and I had a beer. I was sitting there and the 
gentleman across the way from me told the barmaid, [with 
British accent] "Give John the Baptist another drink." I 


didn't pay much attention, then all of a sudden I realized 
he was talking about me. "What brings you here today, 
John? " 

I said, "Well, I came out here to look for those boxes 
that wind up. " 

He said, "That's too bad, I just put them away for the 
winter. They're all stored." He had an assistant with 
him: "That right, mate?" And the assistant bowed and 
nodded his head. So I missed them. He said, "You come 
back in the summer, I'll have them." 

So I did, I went back in the summer. He told me that 
some rich collector, lady from New York bought the whole 
set of them for a million dollars, so I never saw them. 
But I really never regret going on the Palace Pier, because 
the imagery was so wonderful. It went right back to my 
youth. I felt that I was there, walking through the old 
board walls and the holes in the fences. Those old piers 
were built-- I was so used to stain boards and, like, 
stains on the walls, and here they were partially painted, 
and it was peeling off. One Englishman was sitting on the 
pier there. I said, "This is a very interesting pier, 
isn't it?" And he said, "I don't know about that. I think 
it needs a little paint. Seems to be sort of chipped. I 
don't know, it's a good pier to fish off of." I figured, 
well, that kind of a place is for people like me, who love 


that particular nostalgia of that moment, and then the rest 
is for people who like to buy snow cones and whelks and 
cockles, ride the Dodge 'em cars, get their fortunes told, 
I suppose. And then there are those kind of people who 
just like the pier to fish off of. Really, the Redondo 
Pier was to fish off of, too, so it had both things, a 
fishing part and an amusement part. The old pier was built 
like European architecture, you see. 
SMITH: In Redondo. 

WAGNER: In Redondo. The buildings were-- They weren't 
built like now, it was all built like the old European 
architecture. Not like POP; they really cheapened that 
one, putting in all that sort of Disneyland feeling to it, 
the Pacific Ocean Park. The original Ocean Park Pier was a 
great pier, and it had-- I loved it. The Venice Pier was a 
beautiful pier, there were lots of things going on on the 
Venice Pier. The funhouse was one of the big events, 
twenty- five cents all day. 

SMITH: In terms of Firaskew, have your English drawings, 
your Under the Crown series, your playing card series, your 
experiences at Brighton, have they been fed into this at 

WAGNER: I would say so, in quite a few places. Especially 
in the railroad station over here. It's like Waterloo 
Station, or some of the great railway stations in England 


where they go forever in both directions, like Waterloo 
Station, Marylebone, Paddington, they're big stations. 
King's Cross. This station is very important to me, 
because I'm a very, very ardent lover of old railroads and 
the sounds of trains in the night. Although these trains 
within this piece are back to my squiggle trains again, 
like through my early boxes of my train dreams. I've 
incorporated these squiggle trains, the horse- locomotive, 
inside the railroad station. If you notice, the trains are 
part horse and part locomotive, some of those images from 
previous dreams, from the seventies. 

A lot of the architecture is, I would say, British, 
Victorian, in concept without really working at it or 
trying to make a model of a Victorian building. But the 
feeling of the towers and the roofs and things, the window 
details and the wood on the sides and the old planks, it is 
British in a lot of ways. And also, it is British because 
I used bricks, you know, minibricks in the railroad 
stations and up in the details in the buildings, I leave a 
place for just bricks. 

SMITH: Many of the objects are things that you bought or 
found. When do you decide to build something and when do 
you decide to use something that you can get at a store? 
WAGNER: When I can find something for-- When I'm working 
with railroads, for instance, I make my own locomotives and 


make all of the station parts, all of the platforms and the 

stairs and all of that. But people, tiny people, they have 

them in railroad model shops--like the Whistle Stop down 

here, where you can buy them, little people that fit the 

gauges of the railways that you want. That's why I might 

use them in the railroad stations, people waiting for 


SMITH: Then you have the Dungeons and Dragons toys that 


WAGNER: Yeah, those are things I found somewhere. I don't 

know exactly where I found those, but I found them one day 

on the street, just thrown away. I thought they would be 

wonderful to adopt to the corners and towers of old 

buildings, like figures, you know, like many buildings have 

sculpture up on the top of them, you know. 

SMITH: The windows on the chapel, did you draw those 


WAGNER: Yes. The stained glass windows, yeah, I did 

those . 

SMITH: From your own design, or are they stenciled off 


WAGNER: They were kind of a composite, a little of each so 

they would fit into the windows. 

SMITH: Then you've also used trompe I'oeil within the 

piece. Is there a particular function for the trompe- 


I'oeil in this? 

WAGNER: Yeah, I think so. I enjoy trompe I'oeil, 
especially here in the church, where you are looking down 
the aisle of the church on the top of the pool hall. 
Incidentally, the pool hall has sharks swimming around in 
the swimming pool. They're the pool sharks. The pool room 
is above the railroad station, and on top of the pool hall 
is the church. In the very back of the church, over the 
altar, there is Mary. But Mary is very deep, and people 
say they look around the back, there's no Mary, she's not 
there. It's a nice illusion. She's way over in another 
tower, above the curio store on the ship that's going down 
in the whirlpool there. Through the window here, there's a 
ship going down a whirlpool. Look straight in, straight in 
this window. I like that idea of making them wonder 
exactly where it's coming from. Then I have one here in 
the curio store where you are looking down the hall of the 
curio store and the swans from the Tunnel of Love are 
coming at you way down the hall. And the dog in front. Go 
around and look in the Tunnel of Love, and down that 
hallway you see a dog. So those kinds of things twisted 
around a little bit so people wonder what's going on. Then 
I like to do things like the ship here, on top of the 
marine museum, actually going through the building from one 
side to the other with the engine in the room inside. 


SMITH: Are there going to be any sequels to Firaskew or 
additions to it? 

WAGNER: It's possible, it's possible. I may do another 
one one day. When I get the — I didn't think I'd ever do 
this one. I started it in San Pedro with one building, the 
one with the man with the pencil, holding the pencil on the 
drawing that says, "Draw up a chair." Up above it is a man 
riding on a rabbit, a cowboy on a rabbit, called "How To Be 
a Rabbit Puncher." That was the first building, and I 
didn't think maybe I would ever get to doing another one of 
these things. Then I made a sketch one day, and I got it 
and said, "This is going to take me a long time to do this 
thing." So I just started and took my time, and I built 
one building at a time. I had a general idea how it was 
all going together from the concept of the drawing, just to 
sketch it, but I didn't know when or how it would go 
together exactly, just the ideas and picking out a few 
things, like railroad stations, squiggle trains, the marine 
museum, the curio store, the hall of mirrors, and that sort 
of thing. To get the feeling that I had when I used-- 
These are all symbols of what I remember on the pier when I 
was a boy. A lot of the fantasy that appears here is also 
coming out of the dream. 

SMITH: Again, the miniaturization is very important to the 
effect. Could you make this larger? A very common thing 


now is the building of environments, so one could imagine 
this being built on a larger scale that people could go 
into it. 

WAGNER: I could build these things as high as the high 
rises downtown, if you wanted them built that way. They 
could take these things and make huge cities out of them. 
Sure, it could be done. Full-size locomotives, full-size 
boats, people walking all along the pier; it wouldn't be 
any problem. I wouldn't want to do it, but if somebody 
wanted to build it, it would be a wonderful project. 
SMITH: So if you could build something that people could 
move into, an environmental thing, you would do that, then. 
WAGNER: Yeah, sure. 

SMITH: When you do a piece like this, a construction like 
this, it raises the question, what is it for? In the sense 
that when you do your assemblages and your boxes, they can 
go to galleries and they get sold, they hang in somebody's 
house or they hang in a museum. What happens with a piece 
like this? Is there a market for a piece like this? 
WAGNER: I have no idea. I had never thought about it. 
But I'm sure that if some museum wanted to buy it, they 
could make a nice space for it and put it in a glass case 
where you could walk around it. It could be done just as 
easily as showing something else. 
SMITH: But if you put it in a glass case, you would miss 


three-quarters of the effects, wouldn't you? 
WAGNER: I don't think so, not if it was close. I think 
you could still catch most of it. I think so. But I never 
worried about what to do with it. Because I never think 
about any of that; I never built anything for what's going 
to happen to it. My whole philosophy is I build things for 
the joy and love of what's happening at that moment. What 
happens afterward I'm detached from. What's going to 
happen to anything? What's going to happen to The Interior 
Castle? What ' s going to happen to my playing card castle 
[The Suite of Pluses]? They're not commercial ventures, 
you know. They're not like prints or paintings. 
SMITH: In an earlier interview with you that was done in 
the newspaper, you make a distinction between collective 
dreams and archetypal dreams. I was wondering if you 
could-- Do you remember that? That was in the sixties, in 
a newspaper in Oregon. Do you remember making that 

WAGNER: Well, actually, I think what I'm saying is that 
archetypal dreams are things that are related directly to 
me in my own direction and what I'm up to right now. It's 
giving me a message through the labyrinths of where I am in 
my work. I use a lot of archetypal images throughout all 
of my work. 
SMITH: What do you mean by archetypal? 


WAGNER: Well, repetition. A roller coaster is an 
archetypal symbol. My trains are archetypal symbols. My 
walls and textures of buildings and my arches and 
checkerboards, all those things are my archetypal 
symbols. But if I see a bunch of people standing on the 
back of a Mack Bulldog truck wondering where to go, or 
being unloaded off a ship with a lot of cows, or a lot of 
people involved in a dream that I don't even--that doesn't 
even belong to me, I'm sure, I call that collective 
dreaming. It's not part of my archetypal images at all. 
It has nothing to do with me. It's like a newsreel. I'm 
looking at somebody else's dream. I belong to the Society 
for the Restoration of Lost Dreams, where we're allowed to 
buy, sell, lease, mail back to people, dreams. Or we can 
collect dreams, like lucid dreams, archetypal dreams, 
collective dreams, wet dreams, any kind of dreams. We can 
buy and sell those dreams, or we can just mail them off. 
I'm a P.H.D., Professional Head Dreamer, in the Society for 
the Restoration of Lost Dreams. Lukman Glasgow, he's 
actually the executive administrator. D. Ream is the 
president. The last big meeting we had was about ten years 
ago in Eagle Rock, under the rock. We had the society of 
lost dreams, and Kenneth [J.] Atchity-- A whole lot of us 
belong to the organization. Our secretary was a big 
chimpanzee, who was typing the whole time at the table. 


[laughter] So when I say "collective dreams," I always 

feel they don't belong to me, in my way of putting them. 

SMITH: How do they get into your head? Is it from 

watching television or what? 

WAGNER: How it got there? 

SMITH: Yeah, how it got there. 

WAGNER: I have no idea. A lot of my dreams are like 

watching television or watching the news or something. 

They're cut, sharp, direct dreams that come right through 

to me with a story or a visual approach that I can use in 

my work, you know. 

SMITH: Could you tell me about your involvement with 

Dreamworks periodical? 

WAGNER: The magazine? 

SMITH: Yeah. 

WAGNER: Well, it started in 1978 with Kenneth Atchity at 

Occidental College and Marsha Kinder, USC [University of 

Southern California] now. 

SMITH: She was at Occidental. 

WAGNER: I had known these people through the California 

Quarterly, which was a poetry magazine that came out that 

Atchity was the editor of. He'd use some of my works in 

there, poems and pictures of boxes and things. So Marsha 

called me up and said they were going to do a dream 

journal, and she wondered if I would be interested in 


submitting some dreams. So she came over to my house in 
Silver Lake, and I read her about five dreams. She said, 
"That's all I need to know. Let's take them all right 
now." So that's when it started. My dreams were 
published; the first dreams that were published were the 
railroad dreams, my squiggle train dream. Then I became a 
member of the advisory board and still am a member. 
SMITH: Do you attend meetings? 
WAGNER: There isn't any meeting. 

SMITH: Do they submit material for you to review? 
WAGNER: Yeah, I do too. If I find someone that I really 
want to submit, that I like their dreams or whatever 
they're doing, well, I send it to either Ken Atchity or to 
Marsha Kinder. 

The last one I sent in was a dream called the 
"Laughing Girl," with a drawing from a Mexican series in 
the cemetery from one of my nightmares. Well, I got a 
letter from Ken Atchity saying that he wanted to publish 
it, but he thought he would need a commentary on the dream, 
because how could I write-- He would like to know the dream 
rather than how I created the story around the dream. So I 
wrote back to him and said that I didn't create the story 
around the dream, it was actual recall. All I did was get 
up in the morning and write down exactly what happened in 
the dream without any altering of the dream. Well, while 


I'm calling him, writing him that letter, I get another 
letter from Marsha Kinder at USC saying she wanted to 
publish the "Laughing Girl" at the same time in Dreamworks, 
so both of them grabbed it. It was passed on to her, 
apparently. And I said, "Yeah, but they want a 
commentary. " 

She said, "Gordon, you don't need a commentary. When 
you write dreams, they're direct experiences, there's no 
reason for you to have a commentary." 

Well, I did write a commentary, and the commentary's a 
very good one. But it had to do with-- After I had the 
dream, then I went back and wrote the commentary related to 
the different archetypal images, again, that had appeared 
in my life to make that dream possible, you see. Roller 
coasters and the penny arcade and the house of mirrors and 
the celluloid windmills and all those things that I --and 
death, they were all there, my life was all in that dream. 
So that's what I mean by a pure dream that ties together 
where you are; it's not about some remote people over here 
that could be in somebody else's dream. 

SMITH: Do archetypal dreams have a religious connotation? 
WAGNER: Most of mine don't. No, I don't think so. Well, 
I imagine if you were a good psychologist, you could 
probably make one out of it, but I can't. A lot of my 
dreams are to defeat--were actually defeating my fear of 


death, you know. They were helping me to destroy that 
fear. Through those dreams, and then those dreams were 
actually manifested. By doing that I got rid of that fear. 
SMITH: I wanted to ask you a very broad question, which 
is, do you feel there's an artists' community in Southern 

WAGNER: Well, if you call-- How many square miles is Los 

SMITH: Five hundred, or thereabouts, more or less. 
WAGNER: Well, if it's classified as five hundred square 
miles, there's an artists' community, yeah, because 
everybody is so far apart, you know. There's communities 
in each town; like there's a community in San Pedro, 
there's a community in Pasadena, there's one in Santa 
Monica, Venice. But these communities very seldom ever see 
each other unless it's in an exhibition together. You 
never know what the other artist is doing. Our city is not 
built for Sohos and places of that nature, where all the 
artists hang out. In fact, I think it would be very 
difficult to establish an artists community in Los Angeles 
at the present time, due to the fact that wherever artists 
go and get set up as a community, the land developers move 
in, triple their rent and kick them out. What they've 
already done, they improve a little bit more and raise 
their rents up. Artists really don't have much chance in 


city at all of ever finding a community. It's very 
difficult for an artist to live here. I don't know how 
they do it. I don't know how half of them can afford these 
expensive lofts, unless they've got some sort of a stipend 
somewhere and still work as artists. Unless they just have 
that and do other work, do things on weekends, teaching and 
things of that nature. I wish we did have an artists' 
community- I wish we could find one where we could have a 
whole complex instead of senior citizens' complexes, an 
artists' complex, like in New York, in Westbeth, where you 
pay according to your income, that's the way the rentals 
go. If they had that sort of thing here, I would certainly 
be one of the first to belong to their organization. And, 
you know, a central meeting place. Angel's Gate has that 
sort of thing in San Pedro. 



Abstract expressionism, 
102-3, 217-18, 222, 419, 
Ackerman, Sharon, 341 
Ahlquist, Herbert, 361-63 
Alchemy, 141 
Alexander, Robert, 282 
America Needs Indians, 344- 

45, 348, 351 
Amusement parks, 8-9, 12- 
14, 21-25, 442-43, 542- 
45; accident on roller 
coaster, 47-50; Brighton 
Pier, 545-49; fear of, 
Andreolas, Thom, 293-94 
Angel ' s Gate Cultural 
Center (San Pedro, 
California), 105, 145-48, 
236, 239, 244, 245, 246, 
247, 279, 337, 380, 529- 
38, 561 
Anhalt, Jacqueline, 361 
Anhalt Gallery ( Los 

Angeles), 326, 361 
Ankrum Gallery ( Los 

Angeles), 195 
Apollinaire, Guillaume, 444 
Apostolides, Alex, 342-43 
Appel, Karel, 419 
Aquarius Gallery (Cambria, 

California), 529 
Archer Gallery (London), 

Architektenhuis (Gent), 471 
Art Institute of Chicago, 

Artaud, Antonin, 215, 431 
Artemis Galerij (Gent), 475 
Artforum, 150, 342 
Art in America, 150 
Art International, 342 
Artists Equity, 109-13 
Art News, 342 
Ashcan school, 102-3, 110 
Asher, Betty, 188, 289-90 
Asher Faure Gallery ( Los 

Angeles), 289-90 
Ashton, Dore, 457 
Assemblage art, 98-101, 
154-57, 163-64, 186-87, 
265-67, 363-64; Mexican 
influence on, 88, 168-69, 
330; poetic and protest, 
151-53. See also Index 
of Gordon Wagner Works-- 
Assemblage Art; Box Art 
Atchity, Kenneth J., 556-59 
Automatic painting, 218, 
222-23, 438-40 

Baccone, Frank, 62 

Baggi, Niels, 327 

Baker, Jim, 354 

Banyakia, Thomas, 131, 132, 

Barnes, Molly, 284, 361 
Earnhardt, Gen, 455, 467, 

Earnhardt, Raymond, 455 
Earnsdall Junior Art Center 

(Los Angeles), 332, 538, 

539, 540 
Barrymore, John, Jr., 354 
Bassler, Robert, 383 
Baum (Jan) Gallery (Los 

Angeles), 285 
Bayne, Lucy, 285, 286 
Bayne (Lucy) Gallery (Los 

Angeles), 285 
Bayne, Walter, 286 
Beatniks, 311 
Bell, Larry, 210, 212 
Bellows, George, 29, 34 
Benefield, Pat, 112, 472 
Bengston, Billy Al, 189, 

Benton, Thomas Hart, 104 
Berlant, Tony, 150, 198-99, 

Berman, Eugene, 112 
Berman, Wallace, 150, 198, 

205-7, 278, 282 
Bernhard, Ruth, 97 


Berninghaus, Charles, 29 
Bhajan, Yogi, 132, 352-57 
Biberman, Edward, 438 
Big Sur, California, 34, 

41, 52, 53-54, 101-2 
Binkley, Betty, 97 
Bjttrn, Jan, 363 
Blair, Camille, 281 
Blake, Tom, 26 
Bloom, Mark C. , 95 
Blue Pelican Art Gallery 

(Pacific Grove, 

California), 54 
Blum, Irving, 190, 191 
Blumenschein, Ernest, 29 
Boggs, Katherine, 172 
Bosch, Hieronymus, 413, 

433, 479 
Bouchard, Paul, 537 
Boucharie, Jules, 354 
Box art, 292-95, 344, 376, 

399, 401-405, 446; 

constructed, 90-93, 333- 

34, 392-97, 451-56, 472, 

545; funk, 370, 410-11; 

Mexican influence on, 

324-29, 331-34, 381; pun, 

397, 481-82, 490, 526. 

See also Index of Gordon 

Wagner Works--Box Art 
Breton, Andre, 103, 259, 

413, 414, 416, 431, 432- 

33, 441, 457, 524 
Brett, Dorothy, 366 
Brice, William, 110 
Brighton Pier (Brighton, 

England), 545-49 
British Arts Council, 371 
British Museum, 406 
Brockman Gallery ( Los 

Angeles), 305 
Brueghel, Pieter, 413, 433 
Brugger's Fine Arts 

Forwarding Service, 296- 

Buckley, Lord, 312-13 
Buddhism, 63, 208, 218, 

240, 331, 463-64, 511; 

influence on work, 234, 


Buff, Conrad, 32 
Burkhardt, Hans, 111-12, 

Burnside, John, 347 
Bury, Pol, 419 
Byrd, Peter, 371 

Cabala, 84, 205-6 
Cadmus, Paul, 34-35 
Cahill, Daniel, 518-19 
Calder, Alexander, 91 
California State 

University, Fresno, 488- 

Camden Art Center ( London ) , 

376, 394 
Canaday, John, 197 
Cannon, T.C., 133 
Canogar, Raphael, 293 
Carpenter, Craig, 347 
Castelli, Leo, 188, 189, 

Castelli Gallery (New 

York), 188, 189 
Catholicism: conversion 

to, 464-71, 483-84; 

Europe and, 406-8; 

influence on work, 240- 

41, 492-93, 528-29; 

marriages and, 60-62, 63, 

486-87; surrealism and, 

522-25. See also Teresa 

of Avila, Saint 
Cendrars, Blaise, 56 
Cezanne, Paul, 437 
Chagall, Marc, 338 
Chamberlain, Norman S., 9, 

27-30, 31-33, 35, 42, 288 
Chance, 370, 443, 445; 

dice, 370; Fatima, 46-47; 

I Ching, 176, 382; 

playing cards, 83-84, 

249-51, 370, 382, 453, 

456, 472, 482, 526, 549; 

roller coasters, 47-50, 

Tarot, 249. See also 

Amusement parks 
Chaplin, Charlie, 276 
Chappell, Walter, 345, 347 
Chin, Keith, 53 


Chouinard Art Institute, 40 
Chuey, Robert, 299 
Cobra movement, 419 
Cohen, Harry, 191 
Comara Gallery (Los 

Angeles), 288, 290-92, 

360, 427 
Committee for Traditional 

Indian Land and Life, 

347-48, 351 
Coplans, John, 187, 189-90 
Copley, Doris, 456 
Copley, William, 96, 456 
Copley Gallery (Beverly 

Hills), 456 
Corcoran Gallery Biennial, 

178, 188, 296 
Cornells, Lucien, 416, 475- 

76, 477, 479, 480 
Cornell, Joseph, 99, 199, 

329, 456-62 
Cornell, Robert, 458 
Cornwall, Penelope, 537 
Corso, Gregory, 313 
Cottonwood Verde Valley Art 

Association, 118 
Crown, Keith, 288 
Cubism, 30-31, 33 
Cuevas, Jose Luis, 193, 

292, 305 

Dada, 100-101, 254-55, 414, 

Dali, Salvador, 30, 150, 

393, 431, 432 
Dave, Camille, 416 
Day of the Dead. See Death 
Death: cemeteries, 146, 

169-74, 225, 330-31; Day 

of the Dead, 89, 112, 

168, 324; death of 

Patricia Wagner, 174-75; 

fear of, 174-75, 559-60; 

imagery in work, 146, 

168, 217 
Deauville Club (Santa 

Monica, California), 146, 

Debussy, Claude, 102 
Decadent art, 413 

de Erdely, Francis, 96, 288 
Deetjen's (Big Sur, 

California), 53 
Dehr, Rich, 81-82 
de Kooning, Willem, 192, 

252, 419 
Delano, Annita, 32 
Delap, Tony, 213 
Delvaux, Paul, 413, 416, 

423, 431 
Denver Art Museum, 179, 296 
Desnos, Robert, 103, 413 
de Villiers, Stephan, 393 
De Witt, Robert, 220, 311, 

Dike, Phil, 117, 537 
Dine, Jim, 188, 210 
Dixon, Dane, 191, 283, 307 
Dodge Luhan, Mabel, 29 
Dominguez, Oscar, 432 
Dorn, Warren, 437 
Downey Museum of Art 

(Downey, California), 472 
Dreams: archetypal versus 

collective, 555, 557, 

559-60; influence of, 

446-50, 490, 553, 555 
Dreamworks ( periodical ) , 

Druck, Renata, 309 
Duchamp, Marcel, 30, 206, 

254, 415, 416 
Dumps, 154, 161-63, 166, 

377-78, 391-92; in 

Mexico, 330-31; Red 

Mountain, 155-57, 164-65 
Durke, Steve, 345, 347 
Dwan Gallery (Los Angeles), 

187, 188, 192, 203, 283, 

Dylan, Bob, 255 

Echo Park ( Los Angeles ) , 
292, 312, 319, 338, 343, 
361, 453, 469, 487 

Eddy, Nelson, 181 

Edge Gallery (Fullerton, 
California), 236 

Edwards, Mel, 304 

Elger, Rod, 218-21 


El Greco, 254, 298 
Eliot, Ramblin' Jack, 312 
Elliot, Peter (father-in- 
law), 59, 62, 64-65 
Elliott, James, 308 
Eluard, Gala, 432 
Eluard, Paul, 413, 432 
Emsco Derrick Equipment 

Company, 1, 37-38, 39, 66 
Engineering, 69-81 
Ensors, James, 420, 421 
Ernst, Max, 30, 117-18, 
416, 431, 433, 434, 456, 
Eroticism in art, 424-30 
Escher, Maurits, 390, 419 
Etts, Bob, 271 
Europe, living in: 

Amsterdam, 400, 428-29; 
Belgium, 398-99, 404, 
409-14, 416-24, 428-29, 
451-52, 473-81; London, 
365-85, 386, 391-93, 398, 
418; Stockholm, 362-65, 
384, 418 
Evanson, Bj6rn, 363-64 
Everts, Chizuko, 280 
Everts, Connor, 279, 280 
Exodus Gallery (San Pedro, 

California), 279-80 
Eyck, Hubert and Jan van, 
407, 514 

Feigen-Palmer Gallery (New 

York), 188 
Feitelson, Lorser, 110, 

284, 297, 300 
Felgar, Janice, 289 
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence, 

313, 314 
Ferus Gallery ( Los 

Angeles), 179, 187, 190, 

203, 205, 211, 281, 283, 

297, 301, 305, 307 
Finch, Keith, 202, 297, 299 
Fine, Morton, 60 
Fischinger, Dakar, 91 
Fishman, Paula, 326, 328 
Fixel, Justine, 487, 489 
Fixel, Lawrence, 489, 516 

Florentine Gallery (Pacific 

Palisades, California), 

Flores, Joan Milke, 533 
Flynn, Errol, 62 
Foch, Nina, 286 
Foch Raybof f Gallery ( Los 

Angeles ) , 286 
Frankenstein, Alfred, 197 
Frazier, Charles, 150, 415 
Freeman, Betty, 188 
Freith, George, 16-17 
Fremont, Bob, 172 
Fremont, Henriette, 172 
French, Pamela, 531 
Fresh, Tom, 450 
Freud, Sigmund, 441-42 
Funk art, 100, 198, 414, 


Galerie I'Angle-Aigu 

(Brussels), 399, 451 
Galerij Kaleidoscoop 

(Gent), 399, 400, 409, 

Galerij Te Zwarte Panter 

( Antwerp ) , 414 
Garbage. See Dumps 
Garner, Phil, 539 
Gechtoff, Sonia, 191 
Geldzahler, Henry, 191, 

192, 310 
Gentille, Vic, 419 
Getty, George F,, 4 
Giacometti, Alberto, 424 
Ginsberg, Marylyn, 380 
Glasgow, Lukman, 472, 536 
Glynn, Joseph, 494 
Gongora, Leonel, 305 
Gordon Wagner Loves You 

(film), 164 
Gorky, Arshile, 218 
Gorman, Carl, 133, 305 
Gorman, R.C., 133, 305 
Graywood Gallery (Manhattan 

Beach, California), 55 
Greenwich Village Art 

Colony ( Hermosa Beach, 

California), 95 
Grids, 462-63 


Grunwald, Fred, 188 
Guggenheim, Peggy, 104 
Guston, Philip, 36, 104 

Hale, Alan, 62 
Harby, Harold, 437 
Harnett, William Michael, 

108, 253 
Harris, Latif, 337 
Hawn, Goldie, 353 
Hay, Harry, 347, 348, 351 
Hedrick, Wallace, 278 
Henderson, Gil, 191, 282-84 
Henderson, Olympia, 283 
Hepburn, Audrey, 182 
Hermosa Beach and Redondo 

Beach, California, 7, 19- 

20, 102, 167; amusement 

parks in, 8-9, 22-25; 

childhood and adolescence 

in, 1-4, 8, 12-16, 22, 

27-28, 42, 43, 79, 90, 

92, 95, 114, 283-84, 286, 

545; nostalgia for, 539, 

Herms, George, 150, 151, 

191, 198, 206-8, 282, 309 
Hertel, Carl, 357 
Hess, Thomas B. , 197 
Heydt, Meg, 447 
Hickson, Russell, 140, 287 
Hickson Gallery (Manhattan 

Beach, California), 140, 

287-88, 290 
Hiler, Hilaire, 56 
Hippies, 93, 130, 339-40, 

Hirsch, Joseph, 34 
Hooch, Pieter de, 433 
Hoornaert, Frans, 479, 484 
Hopi Indians. See Native 

American cultures of the 

Hopps, Walter, 179, 187, 

191-93, 203, 278, 279, 

281, 306-10, 418 
Horton, Lester, 90 
Hougland, Kisha, 53 
Hougland, Willard, 52, 60, 

95, 96-97, 119-20 

Hougland (Willard) Gallery 

(Hermosa Beach, 

California), 95, 96-97 
Houston, Bruce, 396 
Hufford Machine Works, 79- 

Huntington, Henry, 3 

Irrationality, 391, 452-53; 

and faith, 63, 468-69, 

523. See also Chance 
Irwin, Robert, 210, 211, 

278, 284-85, 298 
Israel Galerij (Amsterdam), 


Jack the Snake Priest, 132 
Jackson, Errol, 377 
Jackson, Janice, 376-77 
Jarvaise, James, 96, 288 
Jean, Marcel, 393 
Jenkins, James, 539 
Jensen, Frank, 32, 288 
Jepson, Herbert, 299 
Jerger, Lieve, 537 
Jerome, Arizona, 113-17, 

119, 120, 122, 123 
Johns, Jasper, 252 
Joyce, Max White, 393 
Jung, Carl, 125, 140, 141, 

234-35, 441-42, 464 

K'achongva, Dan, 130, 348 
Kahanamoku, Duke, 26 
Kanol. See Nolde, Karl 
Kaplan, Leonard, 286 
Kappes, Nick, 529 
Kauffman, Craig, 189, 210, 

211, 278, 297 
Kavanaugh, Kieran, 485 
Kelly, Ellsworth, 371 
Khnopff, Fernand, 413 
Kienholz, Edward, 101, 108, 
150, 179, 187, 198, 200- 
205, 277, 278, 281, 282, 
283, 297, 301, 371, 415 
Kienholz, Lynn, 205 
Kienholz, Mary, 202-3 
Kinder, Marsha, 557-59 
Kirk, Honor, 529, 531 


Klee, Paul, 35, 119-21 
Kline, Franz, 103 
Kneifel, Edward, 287 
Konstsalongen Kavalletin 
(Uppsala, Sweden), 459 
Kosa, Emil, 33 
Kosa, Emil, Jr. , 33 
Kuniyoshi, Yasuo, 110 
Kunkin, Art, 343 
Kuntz, Edward, 537 
Kuprinn, Walter, 32 

Laguna Beach, California, 

34, 213 
Laguna Beach Arts 

Association, 32-33 
Landau, Felix, 196 
Landau (Felix) Gallery (Los 

Angeles), 188, 288 
Lang, Bernard, 371-73, 375, 

383-85, 400 
Lange, Detta, 348 
Lange, Hannes, 348 
Lau, Ed, 537 
Law, John, 353, 356 
Law, Tom, 353 
Leary, Timothy, 347 
Leavin, Margo, 107 
Lebrun, Rico, 104-8, 189, 

288, 292, 299, 300 
Lee, Dean, 53 
Lehman, Jean-Pierre, 375, 

393, 398, 429 
Lehner, Benson, 275 
Lighthouse ( Hermosa Beach, 

California), 92 
Lloyd, Kenneth, 376 
Loboma, Charles, 133-34 
Loboma, Otellie, 133-34 
Loeb, Ronald, 425 
Logosi, Laszlo, 408 
Long Beach Museum of Art, 

Lttnn, Eje, 364 
Los Angeles, as an arts 

community, 9-10, 104, 

185-93, 195-96, 202, 276- 

83, 288, 297-306, 308, 

Los Angeles County Museum 

of Art, 303 
Los Angeles County Museum 

of History, Science, and 

Art, 35, 105, 297 
Los Angeles Free Press, 

Los Angeles Oracle, 356 
Los Angeles Times, 151, 

195-97, 297, 328, 342, 

Love Generator, 345, 346-48 
Lyle (John) Press, 394 

MacDonald-Wright , Stanton, 

Maddox, Conroy, 393 
Magic realism, 103 
Magritte, Georgette, 432, 

Magritte, Rene, 257, 392, 

413, 415, 423, 424, 431, 

432, 434, 456, 459 
Mallarme, Stephane, 417, 

Mallory, Robert, 279 
Mandalas, 141, 147 
Manley, Ray, 118 
Manley, Ray, Jr., 118 
Manning, Timothy, 494 
Manual Arts High School 

(Los Angeles), 35 
Marioni, Tom, 310 
Martin, Eric, 73-74, 76 
Martini, Simone, 514 
Marsh, Reginald, 35 
Mason, Fred, 150 
Masteller, Barry, 517 
Matta Echaurren, Roberto, 

McCarthy, Joseph, 113, 437 
McDonald, Kirk, 59 
McMillen, Michael C, 290 
McReady, George, 181 
Memling, Hans, 422, 514 
Mergenthaler , Hedy, 172, 

317, 318, 319 
Mexico: comparison with 

Los Angeles, 168-70, 230- 

34; influence on work, 

88-89, 93-94, 168-70, 


217, 221-22, 225-26, 261- 

62, 325; living in, 42, 

87-89, 174, 178, 230. 

See also Death- -Day of 

the Dead 
Michelangelo Buonarroti, 

Miller, Dave, 32, 288 
Miller, Harriet, 538-39 
Miller, Henry, 39-40, 51- 

56, 57, 96, 97, 122, 288, 

313, 445-46 
Miller, Lepska, 39, 54 
Miller, Roberta M, , 531-35, 

Millet, Jean-Frangois, 398, 

Millier, Arthur, 151, 196, 

297, 328 
Minimalism, 212-13 
Minschew, William E., Jr., 

Mir6, Joan, 414 
Mirror imagery, 403-4 
Mondrian, Piet, 212, 462 
Monongi, David, 129-31, 

132, 134, 346-47, 351, 

Monza, Luis, 32 
Moore, Henry, 377, 378 
Morgan, Jeanie, 343 
Motherwell, Robert, 103 
Murphy, Michael, 204, 299 
Murray, May, 315 
Museum of Contemporary Art 

(MOCA, Los Angeles), 190 

Narrative in art, 126, 215- 
17, 446-48 

Native American cultures of 
the Southwest, 122, 128- 
32, 143-44, 251, 316, 
331; Indian artists, 133- 
34, 304, 444; Hopis 
compared to Navahos, 142- 
43; influence on Wagner's 
art, 127, 137-38, 139, 
142, 320-21, 344, 520; 
myth and legends of, 125- 
26, 129, 130, 132, 140- 

42, 234, 259-61, 464; 

politics and, 344-48, 

350-52; way of life, 123- 

24, 130-32, 134-39, 322- 

Navaho nation. See Native 

American cultures of the 

Nederland Amerika 

Instituut, 400 
Nelson, Rolph, 207 
Nelson Art Gallery (Kansas 

City), 179 
Newman, Barnett, 371 
New York City, 182-84 
Nieto, Manuel, 337 
Niset, Annie, 475 
Nolde, Emil, 269 
Nolde, Karl, 269-74, 276 
Nordness Gallery (New 

York), 184 
North American Aviation 

Company, 57-58, 62, 70- 

74, 75-79 
Nostalgia in art, 82-84, 

163-66, 542-45, 549 
Now Gallery (Los Angeles), 

179, 187, 281-82 

Oldenburg, Claes, 187, 188, 

252, 418 
Olgvin, John, 265 
Open City, 343 
Open Gallery (Eugene, 

Oregon), 335 
Oppenheimer, Robert, 79, 

Orlando Gallery (Encino, 

California), 361 
Outterbridge, John, 304 

Pacific Grove Art Center 

(Pacific Grove, 

California) 337, 492 
Palace of the Legion of 

Honor (San Francisco), 

Palos Verdes Community Arts 

Center, 530-31 
Partch, Harry, 339 


Pasadena Art Museum, 189, 

Payne, Robert, 276 
Paz, Octavio, 458 
Peake, Channing, 299 
Peers, Allison, 484 
Penderecki, Krzysztof, 257 
Pepper, Samuel, 335 
Perachitch, Yelka, 153 
Peret, Benjamin, 417 
Perkins, Constance, 196 
Perls, Frank, 90, 91, 96, 

110, 111 
Phoenix Art Museum, 140, 

Picabia, Francis, 255 
Picasso, Pablo, 27, 30, 206 
Pittman, Hobson, 110 
Pitzer College, 356, 357-58 
Plagens, Peter: The 

Sunshine Muse, 210, 213- 

Plompens, John, 385, 400 
Pollock, Jackson, 35-36, 

103-4, 192, 218, 252 
Portillo, Tony, 527 
Powell, Judson, 304 
Preston, Don, 166, 339 
Price, Vincent, 181 
Protest art, 82, 152, 252, 

254, 344, 350-51, 434 
Prudhoe, Raymond, 375, 385 
Prudhoe Gallery (London), 

375, 385 
Psychedelic art, 93 
Pueblo Indians. See Native 

American cultures of the 

Purchase prices, 296-97 
Purifoy, Noah, 152, 304 

Quick, David, 81, 82, 539 
Quinn, John R. , 494 

Rauschenberg, Robert, 252 
Ray, Man, 30, 456 
Rayboff, Ernie, 286 
Raymond, John, 276 
Reagan, Ronald, 67-68 
Reddin, Nancy, 205 

Redondo Beach, 

California. See Hermosa 

Beach and Redondo Beach, 

Redondo Union High School 

(Redondo Beach, 

California), 28 
Reed, John, 191, 283 
Reese, Roland, 305 
Reinhardt, Ad, 188, 189, 

Remington, Frederick, 126 
Richer, Artie, 191, 283, 

Richmond Art Center 

(Richmond, California), 

Rivers, Johnny, 354 
Roach, Hal, 182 
Robles, Esther, 196 
Rochegrosse, Georges- 

Antoine, 413 
Rocketdyne, 175, 275, 344 
Rodriguez, Otilio, 485 
Rolling Thunder, 345-46, 

Romero, Frank, 304 
Roobjee, Pierre, 416 
Rosenthal, Bernard, 437-38 
Rubens, Peter Paul, 298, 

Rumsey, Howard, 92 
Ruscha, Edward, 189, 210, 

Russell, Charles Marion, 


Saint-Phalle, Niki de, 204 
Sakalofski, Vitas, 460 
Sanders, Vince, 269 
San Francisco Bay Area, 

453-56, 463, 466-69, 472, 

481, 483, 487-89 
Satie, Erik, 524 
Schiffrin, Arnold, 112, 

276, 538 
Schnelling, Emil, 445 
Schwitters, Kurt, 100 
Scraffiti technique, 41, 

85, 121 


Scrijver, Augusts de, 420 

Scrijver, Leo de, 420-21 

Secunda, Arthur, 150, 189, 
213, 308, 310, 361-62, 
398, 422-23 

Seitz, William, 193, 197 

Seldis, Henry, 193-94, 195 

Semptewa, Otto, 127, 129 

Serisawa, Sueo, 110 

Shaw, Ben, 32, 288 

Sheets, Millard, 537 

Shors, Joan, 399 

Sibelius, Jean, 41, 102 

Silvan Simone Gallery ( Los 
Angeles), 104, 107, 133, 
140, 150, 180-81, 193-94, 
195, 286-87, 289, 290-96, 
305, 327, 328, 360, 453 

Simone, Stephen, 293-94 

Skjttberg, Brigit, 371 

Sloan, John, 29, 34 

Smith, Hassel, 191, 278 

Smithsonian Institution, 

Smoka, Susan, 343 

Snyder, Gary, 313-14 

Society for the Restoration 
of Lost Dreams, 556 

SOdertaije Konsthall 
(Stockholm), 363, 365, 
373, 384 

Spillieart, Leon, 414 

Stables Gallery (Taos, New 
Mexico), 293-94 

Staymate, Mary Jane, 469- 
70, 472 

Stenquist, Nils, 363 

Steven Douglas Company, 275 

Stone, Kenneth, 385 

Strombotny, James, 177, 537 

Superstition, 240-41 

Surfing, 14, 26, 56 

Surrealism, 30, 103, 259, 
393-94, 418, 432-33, 472, 
522-25; Belgium and, 412- 
17, 451, 514; definition 
of, 444-46; psychology 
and, 434-35, 440, 441-42; 
sadism and, 430-31, 433; 
surreal expression in 

Wagner's work, 423-24, 

438, 443-44, 527 
Swain, Arthur, 465, 467, 

470-71, 472, 483-84, 486- 

Symbolist art, 413, 527-29 
Syndell Studios ( Los 

Angeles), 203, 278, 279, 


Talbert, Ben, 150, 198 
Tamarind Lithography 

Workshop ( Los Angeles ) , 

Tamayo, Rufino, 325 
Tanguy, Yves, 431, 433, 524 
Tanning, Dorothea, 118, 456 
Taoism, 63, 208, 240, 331, 

463-64, 511; influence on 

work, 147, 234, 260-61, 

Teresa of Avila, Saint, 

465, 467, 478-80, 445-85, 

491-95, 496-521 
Teresa of Calcutta, Mother, 

516, 519 
Thunholm, Jan, 363 
Timelessness and art, 251- 

57, 351, 434 
Toledo Museum of Art, 179 
Took, George, 35 
Toorop, Jan, 413 
Topanga, California, 81-82, 

101, 175-76, 178, 201, 

218-21, 226, 268-76, 311- 

"Toying Around", 538-40 
Thomas, Norman, 67 
Trompe-1 'oeil, 390, 401, 

Tront, Nellie, 279 
Tuchman, Maurice, 187 
Tyberg, Edith, 353 
Tzara, Tristan, 417 

Ufer, Walter, 29 
Umbracht-Brandt , Lilie, 118 
University of California, 

Berkeley, 40, 59 
University of California, 


Los Angeles, 37, 38, 40, 
52, 70, 152, 189 

van Beverloo, Cornells, 419 
van der Veecken, Raoul, 

399, 409-10 
van Hoogstraten, Samuel, 

van Odenheim, Regine van 

Outryve d'ljdewalle, 475- 

van Raemdonck, Adrian, 414 
van Young, Oscar, 110, 111 
Verhe, Arnold, 416 
Vietnam War, 344 
Vigario, Gordon, 493 
Vigario, Sharon, 493 
Vinche, Lionel, 416 
Vlaminck, Maurice de, 30 
Von's Cafe Galleria 

Coffeehouse ( Los 

Angeles), 202, 277-78 
Vorpal Gallery (New York 

and San Francisco), 335, 

454, 487 
Voulkos, Peter, 191 

Wagman, Arnold, 201, 277 

Wagner, Anna Austin 

(grandmother), 1, 2, 11- 

Wagner, Genevieve (mother), 
1, 11 

Wagner, Jay Spoor (father), 
1, 6-8, 11, 37, 38 

Wagner, Murrel (brother), 2 

Wagner, Patricia Elliot 
(first wife), 54, 58-64, 
68-69, 114, 115, 123, 
174-75, 176, 311, 315, 
408, 464 

Wagner, Virginia Copeland 
(second wife), 128, 129, 
132, 134, 184, 223, 250, 
290, 292, 316-19, 330, 
336, 353, 356, 360, 366, 
376, 377, 398, 405, 428, 
441, 446, 449, 451, 463- 
70, 474, 475, 477, 483- 
84, 486-87, 512, 513, 

517, 518 
Walsch, Marty, 539 
Warhol, Andy, 187 
Warshaw, Howard, 297, 299 
Waters, Frank: The Masked 

Gods, 114, 122, 124 
Watts riot, 152 
Wayne, June, 189-90 
Weatherhill, Ben and John, 

Wendt, Walter, 32 
Westerman, H.C., 104 
Wheelwright, Mary C. , 125 
Whitney Museum of American 

Art (New York), 178 
Williams, Lisa, 343 
Wilson, Bud, 85 
Wilson, Johnny, 44 
Wilson, William, 196, 197, 

342, 427, 442, 453 
Wood, Harry, 79 
Wood, Natalie, 181 
Woolf, Virginia, 366 
Works Progress 

Administration ( WPA ) , 27, 

World War II, 56-58, 66-67 
Wright, Dion, 345, 347 
Wyeth, Andrew, 256 
Wylie, Edith, 85 
Wylie, Frank, 85 

Xenakis, Iannis, 256 

Yoga, 354-56, 511 
Young, Taddeo, 337 

Zamora, Frank, 124 

Zappa, Frank, 166 

Zen Buddhism. See Buddhism 




Between Heaven and Hell 146, 158-59, 

198, 324 

Bright Young Men, The 82 

Cabrillo Beach Memories 245, 263 

Cruciform and Skyrocket 253, 264 

Death Hand 261-62 

Death's Diameter 215 

Fetish (box assemblage, 1970) 227, 228, 331-32 

Fetish (Whiskey Marine series, 1985) 239 

Five Sentinels, The 153 

From the Sea 145, 148, 215 

Gameless Game, The 157 

Hook and Eye 242 

House of Willem 263 

HTG 26 147, 158, 161, 


Icon to a Queen 251 

Icon to Great Railroads 243-44, 321 

Joker, The 251 

La Reyna 262, 264 

Letter Edged in Black, The 261, 264 

Metamorphosis (Whiskey Marine series, 1986) 260 

Mexican Bus (box assemblage) 362, 381 















98-99, 100 





Mexico (box assemblage) 

Monument to the Penny Arcade 

Night Clerk 

Piece of Pieces from the Sea ( series ) 

Railroad Man 


Seven Actors, The 

Shot at Twenty Fathoms 

Sir Deauvllle 146-47, 148-49, 

158, 161, 162, 
198, 229 

Soup Bone Fetish 261, 265 

Two Loves 166-67, 229 

Undersea Log, The 242 

Untitled assemblage created for 152, 304 

Sixty-six Signs in Neon show 

Whiskey Marine series 209-10, 215, 

236-39, 242-48, 
251, 253, 259- 
67, 527 


America Needs Indians or I Think We 350 

Ought to Stop This Sort of Thing. 

Arcane 527 

Black Sun 394 

Bowler, The 402 

Bracero, The 326 


Circus in a Keyhole 

Day of the Dead 

Devil Exorcisor, The 

Devil Set The Church on Fire, The 

Draw up a Chair 

Fetish (box assemblage, 1970) 

Five Keyholes, The 

Gemini Lady, The 


Hap ' s Bath House 

Hilltown Fire Brigade 

Majestic Memories 

Mexican Bus ( box assemblage ) 

Mexico (box assemblage) 

Nino de Prague 
Octaves ' s Piano Brokerage 
Phantom , The 
Phantom Ship, The 
Prairie Schooner, The 
Room, The (1985) 
Russian Hill Incident 
Separate Reflections 
Shadow of a Doubt, The 
Spectator, The 









■27, 1 




, 331 













■24, : 















27, 328 

staircase. The 462 

"Suite of Keyholes" (thirteen boxes) 482-83, 485, 

Theatre of the Upside Dovm 392-93 

Three Faces of a Child 381-82 

Town Ship 3^^ 

Trains in the Comer of My Eye, The 447 

Zodiac Box 334 


Ballet Mobile 90-91 

Castle of the Graf van Ronnnelgem, The 334 

( construction ) 

"Dance Piece with Burned Wood" 338-39 

(construction/performance art) 

Firaskew (construction) 333, 387, 389, 

390, 395, 404, 

443, 513, 526, 

527, 541-45, 

Interior Castle, The (also known as 387,478-81, 
The Castle of the Seven Dwelling 484, 487, 489- 

Places; construction) 521, 525-26, 

541, 555 

Light Machines 91-93 

Living in Infinity 334-37, 454 

(construction/performance art) 

Loof Lirpa 337-38 

(performance art) 

Maze of Invisible Walls, The 338 

(performance art) 

Suit of Pluses, The (construction) 525 



Ahora (painting) 214, 217 

Barrington series (paintings) 85-86 

Big Sur series (paintings) 101-2 

Death of Angel's Flight (painting) 214, 216 

Devil's Workshop (painting, 1960) 214, 216-17 

Double S (collage) 159-60 

Funeraria (painting) 214, 215, 230, 


Memories of the Future 49-50, 386, 

(lithograph series) 426-27, 448 

Mexican drawings 49-50, 221-22, 


Mexican Interior ( painting ) 93 

Metamorphoses (painting, 1966) 214, 215 

Navaho series (paintings) 125-27, 136-42, 

180, 182, 285- 

Nebraska Speedway series (paintings) 182-217 

Nebraska Speedway Windmill (painting) 214, 218-21 

Romantic Figure (collage) 159, 160-61 

Scraffiti paintings 41, 85, 121 

Squaw Fight ( painting ) 230 

"Suit of Squares" (thirteen paintings) 472, 482 

"Suit of Circles" (thirteen paintings) 456, 482 

To an Unknown Angel (painting) 214 

Under the Crown series (drawings) 367, 370 

Yeibichai, The (painting, also known 136, 259, 286 
as The Navajo Night Chant)